By the numbers, Rainbow is Kesha’s third studio album. But spiritually, it’s her first.
Out Friday, Rainbow is Kesha’s first full-length release since her prolonged battle with her mentor-turned-alleged abuser Dr. Luke. It’s the first to feature Kesha’s voice without the electronic sheen that characterized previous hits like TiK ToK, Die Young and We R Who We R. And it’s the first album to let Kesha get weird — and not the manufactured, party-girl “weird” she projected in her previous incarnation. Rainbow is a confetti gun of an album, with 14 wildly eclectic songs that see Kesha at her defiant, unbridled best, whether she’s introducing her mom to Godzilla, collaborating with Dolly Parton or boarding a rocket to space.
Rainbow is an album that many thought would never exist, with a mysterious origin story complicated by legal drama. Kesha’s years-long court battles with Dr. Lukehinged on her claims that the producer prevented her from releasing new material, with a judge denying her request to escape from her contract with Luke’s Kemosabe Records.
In April, Luke stepped down as Kemosabe’s CEO, and experts have suggested that Kesha may have reached a behind-the-scenes deal with Sony to release new music. Questions still remain about whether Luke had a say in Rainbow’s creative direction, or whether he stands to profit from its sales.
Yet, from Kesha’s first note on Rainbow, it’s clear that the album isn’t a Dr. Luke production. While Kesha has always been a musical chameleon, her past releases under Luke’s control were overprocessed and hollow, his lifeless pop production rendering her big-voiced choruses as artificial as the 808s surrounding them.
On Rainbow, Kesha has never sounded less polished, and that’s a compliment, as she warbles and yodels and chirps in a childlike voice, trying on different vocal quirks for size. Hearing her hair-raising belting on tracks like the frenetically joyful Let ‘Em Talk, it’s baffling that anyone would think Kesha’s sounded better as a robot. And thankfully, she’s officially left the sing-rapping behind.
Rainbow isn’t an album for cynics, with nearly every song offering a different vision of redemption to listeners. There’s Prayer, the album’s Biblical lead single, invoking images of Kesha singing from the heavens in white robes and a halo. Bastards swipes the proverb “Don’t let the bastards get you down” for its chorus, while Hymn, a prayer for the sinners, shows Kesha speeding down the highway, declaring “I know that I’m perfect, even when I’m (expletive) up.” Woman, the album’s funkiest track, makes up for its lyrics’ by-the-book feminism with the always-welcome inclusion of the soul group the Dap-Kings. Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You) enlists Dolly Parton for a cover of the country legend’s yearning love song.
And on the album’s simply-sung title track, over a swelling orchestra, she looks at the world with childlike wonder and urges fans to do the same. Considering the battles Kesha has fought to bring Rainbow into the world, it’s astonishing how open and loving her worldview remains.
A 14-track album is bound to have some duds, and many of Rainbow’s less-impressive tracks are soundalikes of other pop stars, from the Katy Perry-channelling Learn to Let Go to the Meghan Trainor-style playground pop of Boogie Feet. Kesha is far more interesting when left to her own weird devices, and it’s hard to imagine either artist making a song like Spaceship, the album’s final track, a banjo-plucking ballad that ends with a spoken-word outro, dictated from her rocket to space.
“I’m waiting for my spaceship to come back to me / I don’t really care if you believe,” she sings, the perfect closing statement from an artist reborn.
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