From a career standpoint, Chromatica was one of the most important albums of the year. Since 2013, Lady Gaga’s career has been in a weird limbo. 2013 brought us ARTPOP, the R. Kelly-marred electropop album that saw Lady Gaga at her worst commercially and culturally. While the album had a few hidden gems, immense controversy tanked the era and sparked Gaga’s shift away from the dance/electropop that made her a household name. In the following years, she released a Grammy-winning jazz duets album with Tony Bennett, headlined the Super Bowl, and released the criminally underrated Joanne: a country-inflected album that stripped down Gaga’s image and showed off her raw vocals in a way that was palatable to the mainstream. Then, came a new career peak for Gaga. She pivoted to acting and starred as the female lead in the acclaimed 2018 remake of A Star Is Born for which she earned two Academy Award nominations, winning Best Original Song for the #1 single, “Shallow,” one of the best songs of the past decade. Gaga has made incredible strides since the 2013 shambles of ARTPOP. She finally convinced the general public of her vocal prowess, showed her versatility, and excelled in other entertainment subindustries. Nevertheless, the question remained of Gaga: The Pop Star™, could she still rule the pop sphere with the dance music that brought her to fame? Her last uptempo dance-pop hit was 2013’s “Applause”; thanks to the boost of the Super Bowl and A Star Is Born, respectively, “Million Reasons” and “Shallow,” both ballads, soared into Billboard‘s Top 10. Chromatica is a resounding “yes.” The euphoric album is her most focused project since The Fame Monster. It’s a joyful and liberating set of anthems that utilize dance music to address past trauma, the power of music, and Gaga’s journey to peace and wholeness.
With Chromatica, Gaga has created another planet. It’s an alternate society that prioritizes freedom and love but doesn’t ignore or romanticize the trauma and tribulations that were a part of the journey. Split into thirds, the album chronicles the euphoria, darkness, and liberation that color the world of Chromatica as illustrated by Gaga’s own personal experiences. Like The Fame, Born This Way, and ARTPOP before it, Chromatica is steeped in the dance-pop sound that launched Gaga to the top of the pop world a little over a decade ago. The record’s lead single, “Stupid Love,” borrows from the brasher interpretations of 80s synthpop while the second single, a duet with Ariana Grande titled “Rain On Me,” blends elements of electropop, disco, and house. There is a certain brightness about Chromatica. Even though the majority of the album’s tracks explicitly address PTSD, anxiety, self-medication, and more, Gaga’s voice soars with such triumph and hope that the music just glows.
Three orchestral interludes separate the different sections of the album and their respective tones set the foundation and mood for the overarching themes of the subsequent songs. Predictably, “Chromatica I” is adorned with a rousing string orchestra that is as grandiose and cinematic as they come. The music feels akin to the opening credits of a film. The album’s first proper track, “Alice,” is arguably one of the best dance-pop songs of Gaga’s career. The song beings as a power ballad that steading morphs into a house-inflected banger on which Gaga uses the Alice in Wonderland story as a metaphor for searching for, and ultimately finding, freedom from her own inner demons. The track is particularly successful because it seems like between “Rain On Me” and “Alice,” Gaga has finally found the balance necessary for her voice to shine. Post-ARTPOP, Gaga has made it a point to belt in this hammed up pseudo-Broadway tone that simply isn’t pleasant to the ear when placed over dance-pop production. On “Alice,” she finds a way to make her tone less harsh and even brings back the robotic voice that characterized many songs on her earlier albums. “Alice” is followed by the album’s two singles which both still sound great in the context of the full album. It should be noted that “Stupid Love” does stick out because it’s such a “hook-y” song, but it still adds to the bubbling euphoria that marks the first third of Chromatica. The final two songs of the album’s first third, “Free Woman” and “Fun Tonight,” are also strong tracks. The former lacks the bombastic choruses of her early works, but the poignant verses (“This is my dancefloor I fought for… We own the downtown, hear our sound”) continue to shape the album as an exaltation of the dance floor in the face of trauma and tragedy. The latter initially seems like filler because the chorus falls flat compared to the intentionality of the verses, but the song ultimately becomes an interesting uptempo take on anxiety and depression and how they hinder social interaction.
The second section of Chromatica houses the album’s darker and more sinister songs. The instrumental interlude has a notably “transitional” feel, almost like when characters in a film move to a new setting that is integral to the plot. On “911,” Gaga brings back that robotic voice as she laments about getting in her own way and the damaging impact that antipsychotics had on her. Like the earlier themes of sexual assault, alcoholism, and anxiety, Gaga continues to use the dance-pop genre to unpack and acknowledge her trauma. “Plastic Doll,” is in this same vein. On that track, Gaga uses that robotic voice as she works her way through the dehumanization of artists in the world of media and how that conflicts with the truth of her fitting into the general standard of what female pop stars should look like. “Sour Candy,” the highly anticipated BLACKPINK collaboration, leans into deep house as the artists trade verses that hold up “sour candy” as a metaphor for the flaws that must be accepted if they are to be truly loved. BLACKPINK delivers verses in Korean and English, and Rosé and Lisa’s chorus is the single catchiest moment of the song. The track’s overall sound is reminscent of Katy Perry & Nicki Minaj‘s “Swish Swish.” Finally, the more staccato cadence that Gaga uses during her verse should have been utilized more. The last two tracks of this section have the uncomfortable relationship of being the most forgettable and one of the most memoranble tracks on the album. “Enigma” is probably the one track that could have been left off the album. It’s doesn’t strive to innovate sonically or lyrically, and it feels like a waste of space when there are so many superior songs. Moreover, thematically, it would have made more sense to place this song next to “Stupid Love” as it doesn’t get nearly as dark as the other tracks in this section. “Replay,” on the other hand, addresses Gaga’s PTSD with some of the album’s most aggressive production since “Stupid Love.” The bridge is hot and the final chorus and outro are even better. The song has this undercurrent of hurt and anger that leads to a blazing moment of catharsis.
As for the album’s final third, it is introduced by an interlude that sounds like the lead up to the final battle in a film, or the calm before the storm, if you will. At just three full-length tracks, this is the shortest section of Chromatica. The first two tracks, “Sine From Above,” a collaboration with Elton John, and “1000 Doves,” are the closest things to ballads on this album. “Sine,” alludes to a sine wave being the simplest model of a musical sound and doubles as a play on the word “sign.” The somber track uplifts the healing power of music to almost religious levels. The religious aspect of the song will return in “Babylon,” the album’s closer. The production on “Sine” does get grating at times, but Elton and Gaga’s vocal chemistry helps placate some of that. “1000 Doves,” is a powerful dance ballad about rising from the rubble and moving towards something greater. Essentially, Gaga reworks the “phoenix” metaphor to use doves instead. Also, the breakdown is very generic, Gaga’s enrapturing vocal performance saves the track. Finally, there’s “Babylon,” the Madonna-esque kiss-off to gossip. The song sounds a bit too similar to “Vogue,” but, like “Sine,” it offers a nice play on words. “Babylon,” refers to the historical city which, in the Bible, was populated by people who spoke different languages, and “babble on” refers to gossip. In the Bible, Babylon has connections to evil, so by subverting that understanding by invoking a homophonous phrase, Gaga is able to call out the wickedness of gossip.
Chromatica succeeds largely because of Gaga’s commitment to providing depth to her dance music. Too often, pop stars use the dance-pop as a means of escapism. On ‘Chromatica,’ Gaga both celebrates that escapism and unpacks the work it took to get to that place of liberation. Unfortunately, the album does suffer because the production is largely redundant in the sense that it exercises the same primary elements of house, electropop, and synthpop for most of its duration. The orchestral interludes offer a bit of a break from that sound, but if Gaga delved deeper into disco or crafted a synth ballad (which Chromatica would have benefitted from) in the vein of Carly Rae Jepsen’s “All That,” the album could have been a bit more well-rounded. Additionally, by and large, the choruses on this album lack the anthemic quality of the choruses of The Fame Monster and Born This Way which makes the climaxes of these tracks falter a bit. In spite of all of this, Chromatica is still Gaga’s most focused and consistent non-soundtrack project in a decade and it’s the perfect playlist for a summer that is sure to be shrouded in the darkness that is necessary for a brighter future.
Key Tracks: “Alice” |”Rain On Me” | “Replay” |”Sour Candy” | “911”