Monday, June 12, 2017

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom | Halsey

Two years ago, a blue-haired Halsey was on track to unleash her own dystopia through a debut concept album, Badlands. Executive produced by her ex-boyfriend Lido, the album found itself at number two on the Billboard 200 thanks to Halsey's army of a cult following. Because she was atop the viral pop pyramid that stands on an anti-airwaves platform, not even a clairvoyant could have predicted that a feature with two frat boy figures on a trend-conforming dance track would dwarf her existing success and shift the trajectory of her career.

Since the record-breaking, culture-encompassing success of "Closer," Halsey has thickened her Rolodex with connections to the biggest of today's popular music producers and songwriters. In turn, although her albums are to be conjoining concept albums, her sophomore record, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom, is far more than a few blocks away from Badlands. With production and co-writing credits given to Greg Kurstin, Benny Blanco, Sia Furler, and Justin Tranter, this album dances between contemporary trends and Halsey's dark alternative pop roots.

Oozing warm, dusky undertones, Hopeless Fountain Kingdom sizzles like a pile of warm embers, kept glowing by her smoky vocal grit and swaying clicks of electronic percussion. Missing, however, are sparks to reignite these tracks into the ear-grabbing bonfires that made her last album an alluring listen. Her production has been stripped and reconstructed, substituting lush bouquets of synthesizers for something that more closely aligns with radio pop's flavor of the day: trap-tinged rhythm and blues. "Now or Never," for example, casts Halsey as Rihanna's first cousin, perhaps unsurprisingly considering the song shares a co-writer with "Needed Me," and a track co-signed by The Weeknd, "Eyes Closed," sounds like a toss-out from his own album.

The fundamentals of Halsey are still intact, but she does show signs of natural artistic evolution. She still slurs her way through sonic wastelands, like when dodging between the bubbling beats of "100 Letters" or layered with a syrupy vocoder on the Cashmere Cat-assisted "Hopeless," but she has learned the almighty power of the belt, deployed like a fighter jet on "Bad at Love" and "Alone." And have no fear: the forced lyrical edge is still there. (For the strongest doses of that, take a hit of "Don't Play," composed almost entirely of a skittering beat drop and the repetition of "motherfucker, don't play with me." So don't play with her. Got it?)

In anticipation of this album, she was nothing if not clear in her intentions: She had her sights set on radio pop, and to accomplish it, she studied and worked with the latest trendsetters. The problem lies in the fact that she was once a calculated product of a post-Lana Del Rey universe, heavily influenced by the popular baroque pop that took viral platforms by storm a few years back. No matter the quality of her output, her jump from one popular trend to the next projects an impression of a reactive artist who shows up to the club only after the cool kids endorse it, not a proactive one who is willing to trek into new territories on her own volition.

Regardless, Halsey is still completely, unabashedly Halsey, be that for the better or for the worse. Drama in the highest degree is still her most exercised artistic skill. This concept album's loose storyboard knits a Shakespeare staple into patchwork of angst, modern misadventure, and sexual exploration – narrated in that husky voice, slurred with nuanced enunciation. It all makes for the relatively enjoyable Halserian experience we expected, but the level of thrill attached to her brand of escapism just isn't quite as intoxicating the second time around.

Hopeless Fountain Kingdom will be available on June 2, 2017, under Astralwerks Records.

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