Somewhere between Gwen Stefani and Fiona Apple lives Elizabeth Grant, better known as Lana Del Rey. As much as I would like to give you one of my infamous stories about how long Ms. Del Rey has been on my radar and about how I've been listening to her music ions before she became popular, I'm afraid I can't. I know I know, I'm shocked too, believe me. It's funny actually, I've seen her a few times and have even heard her name, but never really knew who she was, or exactly what type of music she made. Then seemingly out of no where, her face is splashed on every magazine cover and TV in America. I, like most of America, had no idea that Del Rey actually shot two blanks (one under the moniker Sparkle Jumprope Queen, and the other under Lizzy Grant and the Phenomena) before finally exploding this year, with the surprise hit "Video Games", the lead single from her debut album "Born to Die".
I finally gave "Born to Die" a listen about a week ago. I wasn't really sure what to expect, but I definitely wasn't expecting to fall in love with it the way that I have. "Born to Die" was a great song to start the album with. Not only is it an obvious choice (being the title of the album and all) but it also does a good job of setting the tempo for the rest of the album. Not really upbeat, but not too dreary either. In most cases I would say that that sets the table for a pretty bland album, but for some reason it works for Lana Del Rey. I also feel this song is a great sample of not only the vocals that Del Rey displays, but the quality of production that you are getting on each and every track. I love when I hear a song with music that could've easily been used to set the scene in a movie. Every track on this album has that type of music. I could easily close my eyes and see a sad departure scene in a Nicholas Sparks movie with the music from "Born to Die" playing in the background. I have a special respect for producers who are able to create movies with sounds.
This kinda off topic but I would be remissed if I didn't mention it: While listening to this album, I couldn't help but notice, a lot of the production sounded like Kanye/Cudi style beats. From dramatic build ups, to the sampled screams and boom bap-piness of the drums, this album definitely had a G.O.O.D Music vibe to it. After reading over the production credits, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Emile Haynie (known by most simply as Emile) produced every song except for "Video Games". For those of you who aren't familiar with Emile, he has served as both the engineer and executive producer for both of Kid Cudi's albums, Man on the Moon and Man on the Moon 2, and has done a lot of co-producing for Kanye West, as well as a number of other artists under the G.O.O.D Music imprint. It all made sense! I remember hearing both MOTM and MOTM2 and having the same "movie soundtrack" thoughts. I remember seeing an interview where Cudi said a lot of the songs for his albums were produced with scenes from Lost in Space, Space Odyssey, and other eerie space movies playing on a projector screen. I wonder if the same was done for this album, but maybe with scenes from romance movies playing? o_O
Just a thought.
Songs like "Blue Jeans", "Without You", and the aforementioned "Video Games" will capture the hearts of ballad lovers, while songs like "National Anthem" and "Radio" have a certain pre-YouTube TRL nostalgia (R.I.P) written all over them. I would usually crucify an artist that released an album full of such stereotypical pop material, but it's damn near impossible to listen to this entire album and not come away singing at least one melody to yourself in your head. What makes it great is the fact that it's pop music done with an indie feel. It's kinda like the Batman films. Before Christopher Nolan came along and re-tooled the story of Batman, the franchise was a laughable mess (excluding the original Tim Burton classics). What made the Nolan versions of Batman great was the fact that there was a certain grittiness, a certain level of realness that was brought to the franchise. The same can be said for Born to Die. The grit lies in the production. A song like "Diet Mtn Dew" is a clear cut pop song, but with the interpolation of "If I Ruled the World" it's given a certain realness that makes it an infectious head-nodder.
With the overall feeling of the album being pretty soft, and at times a little too melancholy for the casual listener, songs like "Off to the Races" and "Diet Mtn Dew" do a good job of seducing the listener and bringing just the right amount of edge to keep you engaged. Del Rey does an amazing job of conveying the same "I hope mom doesn't walk in while I'm listening to this" type thrill that you get while listening to any number of Rihanna songs while being able to keep her lyrics PG, which is no easy task. In the song "Lolita", Del Rey walks the line of suggestive wordplay with the focus of an Olympic gymnast with lyrics like, "..just you and me, feeling the heat even when the sun goes down."
For as many sunshine and daisy tracks there are on "Born to Die", there are just as many gloomy, semi-depressing songs that you're bound to hear blaring from your sister's room when she sees that her crush's Facebook status has changed from "single" to "in a relationship". Del Rey seems to be most at home on songs like these. "Dark Fantasy", "Without You", and "Summertime Sadness" all fit her somber, and at times monotonous voice the best. While most people wouldn't be able to pull off the lack of range in these songs, they seem to be the songs where she shines brightest. Similar to how Prince wore assless pants, yet is still able to get any female he wants, Lana Del Rey has a knack for being able to bring life to an otherwise dead song.
All music isn't for everyone. While I thoroughly enjoyed this album, I don't expect everyone to. I, like the rest of the world, saw Lana Del Rey's performance on Saturday Night Live and thought it was terrible. I don't know if it was an extreme publicity stunt gone wrong or nerves, but the amount of inflections in that single performance probably doubled the amount of unintentional voice changes and cracks than I experienced during puberty. While I'm not here to defend Del Rey's live performance, I will say that her album is one of the best albums of 2012 and as much as I may not want to like it, it's definitely one that has stayed on repeat on my iPod. Call her a rich kid who was handed a record deal, call her a manufactured studio singer, call her what you want, but make sure you give her album a listen before you start to pass judgement, you just might like it.