Photo Credit: Interscope Records
It was in February of this year that Lady Gaga declared, “earth is canceled,” and it’s obvious that earth heard her. Chromatica is Gaga’s sixth album, her about-face back into the slippery and bombastic realm of Stefani Germanotta, the pop star, and her official departure to another planet. This record finds the myth of Gaga fully-realized; she’s an Oscar-winning actress, a two-time Super Bowl veteran, a leading voice in beauty and cosmetics, and now an author. Her nature as a chromatic chameleon has always been her biggest advantage and on Chromatica, the process of reinvention is all in her mind.
Gaga’s lyrics have always explored brave feelings while affronting with shockingly dark honesty, and her new explorations into her psyche reveal some terrifying truths. “Replay” is a stunning, sledgehammering dancefloor cut that flips a sample from “It’s My House” by Diana Ross into a spiraling hook that soundtracks Gaga’s battle with PTSD. “The scars on my mind are on replay,” she cries with dramatic gusto. “911”, a crunchy electro-pop nightmare helmed by French producer Madeon alongside the album’s executive producers BloodPop and Benjamin Rice, is an analysis of her manic relationship with antipsychotic medication. Gaga chants about her illustration of trauma in rapid-fire fashion: “Keep repeating self-hating phrases // I have heard enough of these voices,” and, “Keep my dolls inside diamond boxes // Save ‘em ‘til I know I’m gon’ drop this” – dolls being her pills.
Much of this pain and trauma is manifested in how she presents herself to the world, always disguised in garish wares and new designs. Her grasp on her own public perception is incomparable to that of any modern peer; Chromatica is somehow all at once a paean to her career, a manifesto for her fans, a crowd-pleasing return to dance-pop, and a massive career risk; radio has shifted to largely shun the glimmering pop that Gaga built her career on in favor of embracing R&B and hip hop, and her recalibrations on this album are suited with that in mind. “Rain On Me” debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 with the assistance of chart juggernaut Ariana Grande and an interpolation of the bassline from Gwen McCrae’s “All This Love That I’m Givin’.” “Sour Candy” features K-pop supergroup BLACKPINK and samples the deep-house hit “What They Say” by Maya Jane Coles. Chromatica indebts itself to black artists and black music and makes it known by liberally sharing writing and production credits.
The best moments on Gaga records are the parts that are the most undeniably Gaga – as one of this century’s only superstars who is a certifiable diva in the truest sense, her outsized personality is unstoppable even when she’s working with material co-written by others (it should be noted that she has never released a song she doesn’t have writing credits on, excluding covers). Chromatica is Gaga’s most sonically cohesive record yet, but she truly shines in the quirkiest moments: the way she draws out the word “love” on “Stupid Love”, her contralto chanting on “Rain On Me” and “Sour Candy”, her guttural roar on “Enigma.” Notably, nowhere is Gaga more Gaga than on album closer “Babylon”, a vogueing track replete with a saxophone, a church choir, alliterative wordplay, and some exceptional over-pronouncing of the word “gossip.” Like all the wackiest tracks on each of her previous records, “Babylon” succeeds because it doesn’t take itself seriously in the slightest. Who really cares if the beat sounds like Madonna’s “Vogue”? “Money don’t talk, rip that song,” Gaga winks in the chorus. “That’s gossip.”
The most intense critique to be leveled at Chromatica is how concise it is. Each song is tightly wound and spares absolutely no room to breathe – six of the album’s thirteen songs clock in under three minutes, and the rest don’t last much longer than that. The album’s runtime is shockingly short, conducive to repeat listens, and offers an uncharacteristically streamlined experience. But with Gaga, a streamlined experience can wreak of commercialization rather than editing and fine-tuning.
It’s tantalizing to dream of her getting lost in five-, six-, even seven-minute takes of some of these songs and truly reveling in the house and disco music she was inspired by, but Gaga has always been one of the most efficient pop writers in the game with a high ratio of musical hooks to total album runtimes. It’s also never been an ideal of hers to give anyone exactly what they want. On the album’s opener “Alice”, a nod to Lewis Carroll’s eternal heroine, Gaga prays to the musical gods with desperation in a plea that could just as easily be one of her Little Monsters crying out to her: “Maestro, play me your symphony // I will listen to anything // Take me on a trip, DJ, free my mind.”