The truth is that all sorts of weirdos get to be pop stars nowadays, and that should excite you whether you like pop stars or weirdos. Think Lana Del Rey, who has excellent rocket-launcher technique and makes profoundly soporific records that double as fainting couches. Think Fetty Wap, who has one eye and rap-sings like a frightened Scooby Doo. Think Ariana Grande, that tiny, possibly Satanic lady who recently licked a donut and announced that she hates America. Think Ed Sheeran, who looks like Ron Weasley had a baby with an alternate-timeline Ron Weasley and will befoul every wedding you attend for decades hence. Think Nicki Minaj, who now as ever is a human beeeeeeiiiiiiiiing. Think Drake, who is a sentient (and swole!) dad joke. Think Miley Cyrus, or don’t. Think Lady Gaga, period, return.
Sure, Prince, for one, used to be way bigger and remains way, way weirder. But as pop stars have shrunk in stature, their horizons have broadened, or maybe just ours—the outcasts are rolling in from farther and farther out all the time. It is unclear where Grimes—the Vancouver-born singer, producer, outré-style icon, and comment-section bête noire otherwise known as Claire Boucher—fits into this, or if she even intends to fit in anywhere. But the people around her, at least, have lofty intentions.
See 4AD, the deified goth/indie label behind her 2012 breakout album, Visions, all breathy falsetto and unsettlingly narcotizing electro-pop. See Pitchfork, which named the especially unsettling/narcotizing Visions track “Oblivion”—its chorus is See you on a dark night, and it ain’t a love song, let’s leave it at that—the best song of the decade thus far. (She apparently hates Pitchfork now, it’s complicated, stay out of it.) See Jay Z, whose artist-management company Roc Nation signed her up in 2013, because Jay Z stays trying to reach the youths. New Yorker profile? New Yorker profile. You wouldn’t describe anything she’s put out to date as terribly commercial, but there is something singular and unteachable and deeply fascinating about this person. The thing here at :33 or so where she’s guerilla-shooting the “Oblivion” video and offers a cheery wave to a confused onlooker trying to walk in front of her is the best dance move of the decade thus far.
So her new album, Art Angels, came out Friday after an interminable, music-website-news-blog-saturating delay—she can’t even eat a pint of Ben & Jerry’s or consider taking the Ice Bucket Challenge without starting a flame war or three—and it’s gonna be a whole thing amongst your coolest and least tolerable friends. Please enjoy this deeply unchill promo GIF. It can be hard to tell overall whether she wants to scare you away or get you to covet her haircut.
Let’s start with the former attitude, because the record sure does. First, a daffy, throat-clearing orchestral-opera intro titled “Laughing and Not Being Normal.” Then, “California,” a skipping hick-hop hopscotch deal that is apparently a “hate track to Pitchfork” (okay, sorry, stay out of it starting now) and whose sonic cheeriness belies a Tool-esque lyrical darkness, which is basically her whole thing, as when the sunniest, eeriest vocal harmonies power the lines, “And when the ocean rises up above the ground / Maybe I’ll drown.”
And then, well, hit the deck, boys.
If you’re too scared to click on that, there is a surly surf-guitar riff, there is much screaming and bloodthirsty panting, and there is a truly remarkable lead-vocal performance from a Taiwanese rapper named Aristophanes, whose lyrics Boucher has helpfully translated on her Tumblr. The second verse allegedly begins thus:
I planned to record your scream as you reached orgasm
But then realize that I’ve pressed the wrong button
The moment has been lost, irretrievable
You lie there
Struggling with the body fluid that is getting cold
Sticky, transparent, elastic flowers in my palm
I’m not satisfied; I want to squeeze more out of your body
The telephone rings at this moment
Yo. There is no viable way to interpret this album-opening trifecta other than as a polite request that you Beat It. Which is fine! Which is preferable, even, to admirers who grow violent at the thought of Grimes turning into a plain old pop star. (Last year she pitched a song to Rihanna, who rejected it, and then her fans largely rejected her own version, which also turned into a whole thing.) You figure Art Angels will be one of them Assassination Attempt Disguised As Crossover Attempt-type deals, like, say, M.I.A.’s Maya (which kicked off with a world-class Beat It moment), and you’ll end up both merrily going your separate ways. And then “Flesh Without Blood” happens.
I am obsessed with this song. (And the video: The pantomimed snare-drum-with-eye-roll thing at :24 or so is the second-best dance move of the decade thus far.) The guitar holds it all together, simple and primal and pop-punk-ish—I swear this isn’t a neg, but it’s basically what Lil Wayne thought he was doing on Rebirth—but everything else is slightly off and incredibly alluring. The nervous beat that keeps mutating in spite of itself, the 3D swoon of the backing vox (through expensive headphones, this record sounds the way I’m guessing Oculus Rift is supposed to look), the way the chorus turns the angelic/demonic shriek-coo UN-CON-TROLLABLE! into a monster hook. The breakdown! Love the breakdown. Rad song, man. It’s nobody’s idea of a pop hit but hers, which is the best kind of pop hit—the kind that isn’t, but compels you to imagine a world where it could be. Everybody back on board! Jay Z is a genius.
Art Angels never gets that good again, but you get her point—both of them, the push and the pull. It’s not that there’s no precedent for this record, because there’s plenty: Robyn’s wallflower-as-dancing-queen awkward glory, Sleigh Bells’ pulverizing bubblegum thrash, Haim’s pre-flooded-Californian sweetness and light (see “Belly of the Beat”), the creepy and nauseating faux-naiveté of PC Music. For some folks, she triggers cultural-appropriation alarms, too, like a big-budget (North) American remake of a K-pop star. The idea generally is to take a simple, demo-feeling guitar or piano riff and bomb it with hardcore-gearhead grandiosity. (She identifies more as a producer than as a pop star, anyway.) These tracks feel skeletal, but like the skeletons of strange, large, complex, intergalactic beasts.
Carniverous beasts, most likely. She’s trying for a horror or at least sci-fi vibe—it’s a useful reminder that comic books used to be for actual nerds. Lyrically, when they’re even discernible at all, she vacillates between a fizzy bluntness (“I don’t need your medicine / I’m high off adrenaline,” goes the thesis to the peppy light-beer-commercial jam “Art Angels”) and a menacing obliqueness. “Kill v. Maim” sounds as demonic as the title suggests, like Betty Boop cast in Battle Royale; at first, I was self-conscious about completely failing to understand it, but I’ve since been apprised of her explanation that the song was “written from the perspective of Al Pacino in The Godfather Part II, except he’s a vampire who can switch gender and travel through space,” so that’s a relief. There’s a touch of the whole Drake thing, a You Should’ve Been Nicer to Me Before I Was Famous vibe to the quiet ones (“Easily”) and the noisy ones (“World Princess Part II”) alike. But we all still love Drake, right? The meanest thing she can think of to say is, “You want money / You want fame.” She’s Ke$ha without the $.
Here’s the second-best jam, “Realiti,” in slightly modified form—it first showed up in March as the teaser for another album Boucher very theatrically scrapped, because “it sucked.” (You get to love the theater of it all with her.) It shows up on Art Angels only as a sop to the fans, apparently, but it’s top-shelf synth-driven melancholia, and everything that’s made Boucher such an objection of frustration and fascination is here: the mystery and the familiarity, the ennui and the ecstasy, the android and the human, the pop and the art. Art Angels wraps up with “Butterfly,” which is bouncy and playful in a way that leaves you braced for some sort of avant-garde smackdown that never comes, except maybe it does: “If you’re looking for a dream girl / I’ll never be your dream girl,” goes the climax, as if she’s whispering directly into your ear, or Jay Z’s, or Reddit’s. And you know deep down that she’s right, and you still wonder.
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Lead photo by Getty.