Saturday, November 24, 2018

Phoenix | Rita Ora



Rita Ora’s existence as a celebrity has always been a mystery to us Americans. After proving herself to be a foolproof fixture atop the charts in the United Kingdom with a European debut record, she was given perhaps the messiest transition into American media in recent memory. Without more than one song even marginally within America’s realm of consciousness, she showed up on our red carpets, in our Iggy Azalea songs, and our favorite softcore sadomasochism franchises. Little did we know of a public break-ups and an even more public lawsuit against a record label that held her chances of another full-length release in a choke hold, despite a flurry of successful misfires for a second album cycle across the pond.

She came to age with Ellie Goulding and Jessie J, the latter of whom has released five albums to Ora’s two but whose career may as well been marked dormant as long as Ora’s. Having been released from her previous contract and teasing the possibility of a second record for over a year, Ora reappears in the era of Ariana Grande and Halsey, when pop has been lifted from popular music and given a new appeal. Only pop artists (and rock and country artists, for that matter) with celebrity status have survived on American radio, floating on electronic or trap-lite lifeboats. And Rita Ora has made a sucker-punch attempt at making the cut.

Phoenix is her first chance to make a lengthy statement in America, as her debut remains unreleased here. But she has reinvented herself to an extent that Phoenix all but defuncts her debut record entirely. Much like Goulding's pure pop statement Delirium, it is current, no-frills pop music with sleek production that pushes her voice to the forefront rather than bury it behind an instrumental wall. Even dance tracks "Lonely Together" and "Summer Love," produced by Avicii and Rudimental, respectively, bow to her husky soprano. The instrumental break of "Lonely Together" bleeds directly from her belt, and her voice acts as the smooth gloss over the Rudimental track's tinny, jittery '90s house beat.

Though its title suggests acknowledgement of a struggle, the record's integral statement comes in "Your Song," a bright track that radiates its optimism over a "Work From Home" beat: "I don't wanna hear sad songs anymore. I only wanna hear love songs," she sings. Built for the playlist-building streaming era in which we live, Phoenix isn't a statement record on its face; it's full of the fun love songs that Ora wants to hear, many of them being scooped up from the past year or so and called a collection. "For You," an exhilarating collaboration with fellow cultural nonevent Liam Payne, is carried over from the Fifty Shades Freed film soundtrack; "Your Song," the phenomenal dance trance "Anywhere," and the Avicii cut were released well over a year ago.

The record's triumph comes not in touting a winner's attitude, but in executing topical pop music as if it's business as usual – and with the exception of perhaps "First Time High" and the Julia Michaels duet, it's very good pop music, at that. "New Look" drags listeners into an unbelievable groove, and most recent English hit "Let You Love Me" is an absolute bop. Feeling more adaptive than innovative, Phoenix allows Rita Ora to exist in the moment and just be a pop star – exactly what she was qualified to be in the first place, before her status as a professional awards show presenter and occasional actress became just as awkward as it sounds. And although it listens as if it has nothing to prove, Phoenix lets us all know that we shouldn't have counted Rita Ora out so quickly.

Phoenix is available now under Atlantic Records.

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Maira Gall