Lady Gaga is at her peak when she's playing the neon queen of all the world's outcasts. And with her constant prodding, her Little Monsters have filled the biggest big tent in modern pop. But in the five years since Stefani Germanotta's arrival, weird has become the currency that overwhelmingly fuels pop culture – from seapunk Tumblrs to American Horror Story. So for Gaga to stay on top in 2013, she has to keep cranking up the cray.
For better and for worse, Artpop meets the mandate. It's a bizarre album of squelchy disco (plus a handful of forays into R&B) that aspires to link gallery culture and radio heaven, preferring concepts to choruses. It's sexual but not sexy, filled with bitchy fashion designers and one-liners like "Uranus/Don't you know my ass is famous?" and "Touch me, touch me, don't be sweet/Love me, love me, please retweet." Gaga wants us to believe the LP was inspired by Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons and Sandro Botticelli; at its best, it sounds like it was creatively directed by RuPaul, Dr. Ruth, and Beavis and Butt-Head.
Artpop opens with four tracks of thumping futuresex/lovesounds where Gaga vows to lay her intentions, and body, naked. She cops a drag queen's arch humor on intergalactic journey "Venus," examines sex and power on gothy grinder "G.U.Y" (which stands for "girl under you"), and woos a lover whose "boyfriend was away this weekend" on the slinky "Sexxx Dreams." Yes, we can read her poker face.
But just as Artpop gets into a groove of high-tech Pop&B, her creative impulses splinter. She plays hook girl for Too $hort, Twista and T.I.'s thugged-up, self-parodic "Jewels N' Drugs" and falls for her own cutesy wordplay on the glammy "MANiCURE." The Rick Rubin-produced "Dope" is a turgid ballad about the slippery slopes of romance and drugs that lunges for Elton John and crash-lands near Meat Loaf.
Gaga's previous albums – 2008's electro-pop romp The Fame and its brilliant follow-up EP, The Fame Monster, and 2011's inventively nostalgic Born This Way – were largely the result of partnerships with producers RedOne and Fernando Garibay. Paul "DJ White Shadow" Blair worked on most of Artpop, but there's a pile-up of names in the credits including Zedd, Madeon, David Guetta, Infected Mushroom and Will.i.am. In the past two years, Gaga has split from her longtime stylist/choreographer and manager and canceled a world tour to recover from a serious hip injury. Could Artpop simply be a distraction obscuring the drama behind the curtain?
Ironically, Gaga redeems the LP with a pair of tracks that strip away the artifice in favor of plain sentiment: "Do What U Want," a spectacularly growly and groovy R. Kelly duet, and "Gypsy," an Eighties-style anthem where Gaga admits her love of performing and love of love often clash. "I don't want to be alone forever, but I love gypsy life," she sings without abandon. Neither track is subtle, but they work because they weren't born from the chilly conceit that art and pop need an arranged marriage to get busy.