Album Review: Kesha’s ‘Rainbow’

Kesha's 'Rainbow' Album Review

Kesha seems stuck between a rock and a hard place on “Rainbow,” her third album and her first since the ongoing legal turmoil and startling allegations between the singer and her former producer/mentor, Dr. Luke began nearly three years ago. She rose to fame essentially as a gifted musical comedienne with her wildly entertaining debut, “Animal,” seven years ago, but it would strike an odd note for her to return after the years of legal trauma with an album of party anthems like her biggest hit, “Tik Tok.” But does the world want a Kesha who’s traded in irreverence for righteousness?

She splits the difference on “Rainbow,” which is initially so front-loaded with angry ballads, pop sing-alongs, and feisty feminist anthems that you might wonder if any real sense of fun got dropped along with the dollar sign in her name. The old mirth does reappear, mostly in the album’s second half. But first, she’s got some things to get off her chest, and some war paint to put on.

For a while, anyway, it seems that a better title for this album than “Rainbow” would have been “Warrior” (except she used that one on her previous record). It would be nice to report that the songs addressing the distress of the last few years reveal her as a great confessional singer/songwriter, but the clunkiness of her most sober material here blunts its impact. Her most angry/inspirational tracks, like “Don’t Let the Bastards Get You Down,” “Learn to Let Go,” and “Praying,” suffer not from seriousness but relative artlessness as Kesha unleashes a stream of Deepak-ian self-help bromides (embellished with plenty of Tupac-ian language) that’d sound better as bathroom-mirror sticky-note affirmations than they do as gospel-choir-backed lyrics.

Aspirationally, it feels like she’s trying to go for Pink at her pissed-off best, or the Dixie Chicks in “Not Ready to Make Nice” mode, but either of those acts would have tossed first-draft lines like “I’ve found a strength I’ve never known” and “Don’t let the losers take your magic.” (At least “I’ve decided all the haters everywhere can suck my dick” is too profane to quite count as prosaic.) The moment for some kind of personal revelation is nigh, but all these pop-psych clichés leave you feeling you know less about the real Kesha than you did coming in.

It’s no judgment on the gravity of her situation to say that that the album starts to feel more accomplished as its subject matter gets more trivial. The levity reaches a peak in “Hunt You Down,” a country-music pastiche that veers close to outright genre parody yet still has the album’s most irresistible hook. (It’s definitely the least Lana Del Rey-like song that producer Rick Nowels has ever been involved with; you might wish he’d worked on more than just one track here.) There’s a less goofy take on C&W in Kesha’s duet with Dolly Parton on an earnest remake of the latter’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” as penned a good 40 years ago by Kesha’s Music-Row-pro mom, Pebe Sebert (who also contributed to some of the new material).

The agreeable musical extremes of “Rainbow” are represented by the ornate title track, produced by Ben Folds in his most cheerfully paisley, orchestral mode, and “Boogie Feet,” the second and by far the silliest of two new collaborations with the rock band Eagles of Death Metal. Throwing the album’s last traces of sober self-actualization to the wind, “Boogie Feet” has her declaring: “There’s no wrong, there’s no right/ Koo Koo bananas unite.” The return to Kesha Mach 1 ridiculousness feels refreshing and, just maybe, even more authentic. Not that you’d want her to push past her pain prematurely, but when it comes to the writing part, Kesha just happens to still be cleverer at playing koo-koo than guru.

Kesha
“Rainbow”
Kemosabe/RCA
Executive producer: Kesha
Producers: Ricky Reed, Drew Pearson, Stuart Crichton, Brody Brown, Jonny Price, Ryan Lewis, Ben Folds, Rick Nowels, Pepe Sebert

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    1. Mr. Notch says:

      I can’t hate on the author for this review at all. I disagree with it profoundly but I also very much understand where it comes from. There are startlingly few genuine and skilled musicians and lyricists compared to the many more, some even from the old guard in conversion, who lean entirely on their interesting identity politics to establish their star. Rainbow is most definitely a feminist record as it had to be after all that had happened, but a critic’s job is to determine the validity of art regardless of the real life of the artist making it. Where I think this critic misses the mark, actually, is in giving too MUCH credence to the feminism of the album. One hopes that a record that will undoubtedly serve as a rallying cry for others of a like mind (as it has in the comments here :P) would have something more profound to say, or else it would refuse to comment on the events of the last five years and just be a diversion that everyone can still get behind. But the wonderful thing about this record is that it is absolutely honest, a trait missing from much of Ke$ha’s earlier work (though admittedly I loved that as well. Dr. Luke was actually a strong influence on my own productions before even I had to concede that he was legitimately not a good person). And an honest voice, unafraid to rhyme “highway” with “Hyundai” in earnest, may be just what any movement, feminism or otherwise, really needs as a shot in the arm. For me, whatever politics are on display on the record aside, this is a strong contender for my album of the year. And that’s the honest truth.

    2. Elizabeth says:

      I disagree with this review completely. Based on these comments, it seems the writer Chris Williams is a little detached from the public opinion.

    3. shanon says:

      I’m a 27 year old guy who hates almost all new music that’s been churned out in the last few years. I also have very few female artists I listen too regularly. I honestly couldn’t stand Kesha when she was putting out her earlier work. The music was just dumb in my opinion. But this album, I absolutley love it. I’ve been waiting for a female artist to hit the charts with music like this (Adelle of course blows it away but she’s somthing special). I’m listeneing to her album on repeat right now, hope she continues in this vein.

    4. KIm Bayless says:

      DISAGREE with review. I felt so moved by the honesty and emotion in her work that I was inspired to send her fan mail, something I’ve never before done in my 40 years on this planet. She is brave to release something so personal and different from her established image. Kesha is a true artist!

    5. Meg says:

      I disagree. There are a few songs on the album I’m not in love with, but I think overall it’s a beautiful comeback for her. I also loved that she had a mixture of genres, despite not really being a country fan.

    6. Megan says:

      As a 40-year-old woman, feminist, and survivor of intimate partner violence, I disagree with this review so much. I am not even really a pop fan, but I gave the album a shot after listening to Praying over and over again after I first heard it. That song encapsulates so much of my own experience and is so cathartic. Her lyrics aren’t contemporary poetry, but I empathize with them in my bones. The imperfections in her voice gut me. When she sings, “I’m proud of who I am,” I tear up, 70 listens later. What is so refreshing in this album is the honesty, the unabashed “me-ness” of the music. She’s not pretending to be the lyricist of the century. She’s not pretending to be anything other than what she is. I related to the stripped-bare, claws-out, still-having-fun, gleeful, scarred survivorship. I don’t think the reviewer needed to be a woman or an assault survivor to review this well, but clearly the point was missed. This album is not for you, sir.

    7. Anthony says:

      I couldn’t disagree with this Variety article more and I’m not even a huge Kesha person. At least I never used to be. This album hit it on the head with it’s amazing tones and radiance. Wow did you get it wrong, Variety!

    8. Jazmine Rose says:

      I think those who cannot fully understand or relate to what she went through, and how deeply that kind of experience cuts to your core, cannot understand the deep metaphorical and completely accurate response in the album but specifically in PRAYING. That song is so revealing and shows the true experience of a SURVIVOR….you dont stoop to the level of evil, they spread the light and recognize their pwn strength….you only see how pathetic an abuser is and feel sorry that there black soul will be paying for their sins, and refuse to give them one more drop of power over you by letting go of hate and choose to be better than them. Shes made me love and respect her on an entirely different level. Not everyone chooses to be a SURVIVOR, many are too weak or want to stay victims….Those that rise above are indestructable because although we were broken, we also know we can survive ;*

    9. After reading the article, I am SO glad I read the comments section because I was starting to think I was suddenly in a backwards, alternate universe. I am IN LOVE with this album, and only admittedly became a genuine fan of her this tear. Prior to that she was just another pop artist with a few catchy hits. I never follow artists on youtube or spotify etc, or anywhere else that I like to consume my media, but I have gone out of my way to favorite her, add her, anything I can. I am so glad I did, because that resulted in me getting an alert about the new album and I listened to it with my mom today. My mom has gone through and continues to go through very tough and personal struggles, and it was very special to see how some of the lyrics touched her. One of these notably was in Rainbow, and the simple artistic word choice was beautiful and reminded me of poetry my mother used to write. However, I can’t decide on aa favorite. Anyways, I’ve begun to ramble but I just needed to throw as much positivity at this brutally and completely unnecessarily critical and cynical and negative review. Kesha’s new music has a way of not only showing her soul, but do it in a way that is holding up a mirror. And also some of those funky dance jams/hooks are on fire.

    10. Kevin says:

      I’ve been a Kesha fan before Tik-Tok was even on the radio, and I couldn’t agree with this review more. I doubt i’ll ever listen this is album again.

    11. Jk says:

      LOL all the kesha fans complaining because they don’t like to read an opinion about her idol’s album. It’s no good, she has never been good and poor girl if everything she said is true about his former producer, but all of that doesn’t make this good, bad lyrics, bad symphonies, a mediocre record at best

    12. Your review was garbage, sir. You don’t like this album because its too country or too rock and not enough pop? Aren’t you just suppose to review this music without bias?

    13. Goncalo says:

      How did Variety let such a poor review be published? This album made me a fan!

    14. Jessicamiller says:

      Yay Kesha so good to see a come back you go girl !! Love the new album 😍🌈

    15. Amber says:

      I’m feeling the EXACT way everyone else in this comment section is. I read the third paragraph and just thought, ‘this must be a man’. And ALAS! As a woman (30 y/o), this reminded me of youthful thoughts and struggles I had at 15, 18, 21, 25…but also that as women. It reminded me that we’re stronger than any of us realize, or get credit for. YOU. GO. GIRL!

      Wasn’t much of a fan before, but I’m buying concert tickets as we speak and have played the album front to back all night with a glass of rose accompanied by some sweet dance moves and my acoustic guitar.

      Also.. covering a Merle Haggard song with Dolly? Such a pleasant surprise :)

      Chris, you suck (at reviewing this album anyway).

    16. manisacrowd says:

      I have never been a Kesha fan nor followed her much. Heard about her plight in the recent years never gave it much thought . Heard Praying and was like “who is this” Kesha gave the album a listen and it got me. This album made me a fan. It will make new fans and excite the old fans.
      I mean seriously “Deepak-ian self-help bromides (embellished with plenty of Tupac-ian language).” Not clever, and Deepak/Tupac didn’t come to my mind listening to this album. Clearly you really don’t get Deepak or Tupac for that matter, not even remotely.

    17. Kyle McGrath says:

      This is the most butthurt, insensitive, cynical review i’ve ever read about a piece of entertainment, and i’ve read the mogie reviews about The Interview. Chris Willman should be ashamed for writing this because it’s so biased, it’s disgusting. Thank god he doesn’t have any cashay in Hollywood or else his white-washed, heteronormative, homogynized opinions would soil many careers. Imagine if this review had been about an Eric Clapton album 🤔🤔🤔

      • Anthony says:

        Exactly! This review was ridiculous and I’m not a huge Kesha geek or anything. I doubt these people even sat with this album and actually listened. Disappointing coming from Variety to say the least.

    18. What an aweful, negative, and cynical review. Looking to focus on the negative never left a writer with accolades or a legacy. It’s one thing to speek on musical quality from an educated perspective, but another to focus on writing the majority of an article focused on highlighting the negatives. Would you have liked Kesha to continue with another album with the same sound and perspective as her previous? Quite frankly the zeitgeist is so focused on bringing people down and judgment that we are not moving forward. This article sounds like it’s playing to an audience, which is bored, cynical, tired and traped in its own convictions.

    19. Yaz says:

      it’s obvious that you’re a hater. wait n witness the impact of “rainbow”

    20. anon2 says:

      I’m just in awe of the lack of self awareness you must have as a critic, after years of the most common criticism of Kesha’s music being that it was too shallow and upbeat and pop-driven, to ask “where did the fun go?”

    21. Gretchen says:

      This album is amazing. This review is baloney. She rocks hard and literally touches me to the core with this album. Why would she come back at Ke$ha after all she’s gone through? Why would you want her to? These songs are authentic and incredible.

    22. Karen says:

      What a strange and cynical review. I couldn’t disagree more. Every song on this incredibly creative and authentic album is a gem.

    23. cuelife says:

      In the words of Cher Horowitz, “that was way harsh, Tai.” I happen to really like the album and you can tell she’s writing from the heart, and you can even hear the pain in her voice on Praying. If she was too “confessional singer/songwriter” that would be way off base of who she is. I think she did a great job balancing emotion with her usual musical corkiness. Two enthusiastic thumbs up.

    24. Shane says:

      I agree with most of what is said here – I feel let down by this album. With promising tracks released like “Praying”, “Learn to Let Go”, “Woman”, and “Hymn” were amazing. Heartfelt, earnest, and showcasing her pain through all she’s been through, I expected Rainbow to be amazing, ethereal, and mind-blowing. God knows she’s been through enough to fuel her writing. The rest of the album is nothing like these songs. I felt like she could go with the yell-y, fiesty, Joan Jet, Riot Grrrl type sound that she gives a shot at in a few of these songs, but she mixes in these absurd country songs right next to it and it makes no sense to me. I found the confusion while listening to the album more prominent than any real interest, and it saddens me because like I said before, the initial tracks are amazing. She was trying to do a lot of things with this album and I feel like she does none of them effectively. A lot of these songs – especially Godzilla – feel like they belonged in 2003.

    25. imyoungmanny says:

      Is this how you review an album?

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