UltraviolenceBorn to Die” was an ultimately deceitful album as it was based on the promise that was “Video Games”. Heard only six months before the album debuted and accompanied by the not-quite-equally but still utterly beguiling “Blue Jeans”, these were surely a tantalisingly small taste of what was to come. Thoroughly retrofit, other-worldly and desolate songs with melodies that made you stop what you were doing. “Born to Die”was still a good album but is not the one that many craved or expected and it divided opinion sharply, featuring Del Rey rapping about highly-caffeinated fizzy drinks, repetitive hip hop sounds and samples and a large count of songs that could have just as easily been Britney/Gaga/Rihanna. It was dominated by a production style that can best be described as bombastic and cynical. It also sold in excess of seven million copies and it can safely be presumed that with this came a clout that allowed Del Rey and her choice of producers to finally deliver on that initial promise, as least partially. “Ultraviolence” is the sound of an artist, I suspect, being freed up to fulfil their own creative desires; that sound is both very different from what came before and also very much the same.  

Cruel World” opens the album in a grandiose and gloating fashion- at nearly 7 minutes long it declares its own riskiness loudly and with an obvious pride. Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys has, along with Del Rey, decided the sonic template; he produced the majority of the album, and it is represented in full here and is adhered to pretty much throughout. Out go the r’n’b beats, trip-hop,  the clattering metallic percussion and the sugared spoken-song rhymes  to be replaced by live drums, guitars with serious intent and a dazed and strung out Del Rey yowling ‘you’re fucking crazy -- you’re crazy for me’. Leading to her best melody second only to “Video Games”, “Ultraviolence  is a song that could have come at any point during her discography and would be considered one that encapsulates her ability to pull you close and watch the collision. Its controversy is ridiculous and highly theatrical but the beauty is undeniable. “Shades of Cool” is, again, a gorgeous swooping waltz with a falsetto chorus and a line in haughty cattiness that confirms Del Rey’s refusal to play the feminist role in a way that has and will alienate many. The guitars deliriously shred the languid mood to pieces in the final minutes of the song and it’s her best attempt at a Bond theme thus far.

The initially deceptively empty and messy sounding “West Coast” is in many ways “Ultraviolence”’s biggest triumph. As the first piece of music heard from the album it threw many with its refusal to stick to a steady tempo -- slowing down dramatically in the chorus only to speed up again- and vocals that during the verses were tight and gulped. It wasn’t the Lana Del Rey we were used to hearing and quite possibly one we didn’t like but repeated listens reveal a thrillingly compact and almost perversely catchy pop song that confirmed that this time around, she wasn’t interested in an easy win. “Brooklyn Baby” is the album’s only concession to light. A track that twirls and revels in a 1960’s, a near Saint Etienne folk-pop confection that has a depth and warmth that isn’t evident at first listen -- another slow burner in an album that has many. “Brooklyn Baby” does however highlight a sticking point with Del Rey and that is not her ability as a performer, she sounds far more confident and poised on this album than the last, but her abilities as a song writer. It’s not clear whether the song is bemoaning current-day hipsters or an actual celebration of the beat movement of that time, either way the writing is hackneyed and clunky to the point where it seems to be intentional but then again, I suspect not.

Daddies, diamonds, death, drugs (lots and lots of drugs) and little red dresses have all been referred to by the time we reach the album’s half way point but because of the exceptionally strong songs and performances they don’t grate in the way that they could have done. The Lana Del Rey key-words remain, her stock phrases that have been there from the beginning but still, somehow, have allowed her to create new music without it becoming ludicrous. Because of the baggy and lifeless combination of “Sad Girl” and “Pretty When You Cry” ( those titles!) being stuck together in the middle of the album though, this aspect of the Lana Del Rey  persona  -- wronged woman,  sad woman, loves her men bad woman -- ultimately and inevitably becomes boring. The venomous “Fucked my Way Up to the Top” and almost brilliant “Money Power Glory” which is let down only by a repetitive and not fully realised chorus, restores some of the energy but it never quite reaches the highs of its first half.

“Ultraviolence” has just about secured Lana Del Rey’s status as An Artist to be Taken Seriously, irritating to many maybe but difficult to deny or avoid given the force at which her vision here takes its form. It’s not an easy album on any level -- sonically, lyrically or vocally and the playfulness that littered “Born to Die” has all but evaporated and is replaced by a looser, insidious malaise and increasing desperation which only very occasionally is flushed out by a crystalline piano ballad ( the very lovely “Old Money”) or a laughed-out-loud line. It’s hard to say whether the closing track, a cover version of Nina Simone’s “The Other Woman”, is a ridiculously on-the-nose piss-take on the Del Rey construction or the perfect finale for a pop star whose talent has been to locate something that has been dormant for some time, an ability to transcend cultural dictates and become an individual. Either way it doesn’t really matter, there is music here to daydream deeply to and when done, return to life which will never be as dangerous, sick and romantic as the world that Del Rey has created here. That is indeed, quite a talent.  

Angel HazeAngel Haze is an exciting prospect. The 22 year old rapper and sometimes singer from Detroit’s flow is like an exhilarating and effortless amphetamine hit; you hear her, you sit up and you ask ‘who?’ Her story is one of cult religions, abuse and an exploration of her sexuality and sexual orientation and how all of these things have resolutely not made her into a victim. After several mix tapes it was 2012’s unexpectedly diverse and brilliant “Reservation” and her covers EP “Classick”, both exploring all of these experiences, that guaranteed she could no longer go unheard. Her biggest hit to date, the skeletal and booming “New York” has now become a club essential and a classic in itself. So why exactly does “Dirty Gold”, Angel Haze’s first official album release sound like such a step backwards?

It may take a while to pull your already-established fan base along with you, but the decision to move from the relatively underground to the mainstream is not necessarily bad. It’s apparent after hearing  the opening track, the scene-setting “Sing About Me” that Angel Haze wants to make it big as a crossover act; not as a rap artist or a hip-hop artist but as a pop star. Listening to recent interviews and the snippets of dialogue contained through “Dirty Gold” this indeed would appear to be Haze’s choice. Beginning with a sung chorus, shimmering synths and a repetitive R2D2 whistle, “Sing About Me”, is uplifting and pleasant but completely derivative r’n’b pop. With sing-song rapped verses, Haze encourages us to celebrate her success and this formula of sung chorus and rapped verse is repeated almost throughout the entirety of the tracks on “Dirty Gold”. On the third song, “A Tribe Called Red”, a trapped-out and dub-stepped rhythm supports Haze’s rap spit efficiently enough but then  is completely compromised  and crushed by the excruciatingly heavy-handed (sung) chorus telling the listener  ‘Don’t give up…turn it around’. It already sounds dated; the EDM ticks, the histrionics and the self-empowering sentiment.

As if any further confirmation were required, the presence of omnipresent songwriter and pop star in her right, Sia, both singing and writing on “Battle Cry” (the hands in the air chorus actually states ‘lift your hands towards the sky’) and with production by equally in-demand Greg Kurstin (Kylie, Britney and Lily Allen), there is no doubt that Haze is aiming stadium big. But even with such dependable collaborators the overall sound of this is overwrought and clichéd, particularly in the slower and more ‘serious’ second half. The most obvious comparison is that of Nicki Minaj who, like Haze, released early mix tapes and through thunder-stealing features proved herself as a gloriously eccentric, genuinely witty and charismatic performer and then her debut “Pink Friday” appeared and  it was sonically safe, overly sentimental and, worst of all, dull. The Minaj that was initially promised was not the Minaj delivered and the Angel Haze that we expected has similarly been mislaid somewhere in transit.

There are moments of “Dirty Gold” that do work well within this new format. The first single taken from the album, the Markus Dravs-produced (Bjork, Arcade Fire and Coldplay, amongst others) “Echelon (It’s My Way)” sounds fresh and relevant. It has the best chorus on “Dirty Gold” by some distance and its trap styling and deceptively shallow subject matter (fashion, basically) are pretty perfunctory --  it’s pretty much the second instalment to ASAP Rocky’s “Fashion Killa” – but on an album that is looking for instant pop gratification and perfect hooks this does the trick very well. “Deep Sea Diver” has a tight groove and throbs and rattles like prime time Missy Elliott and “White Lilies/White Lies” has breadth and an epic feel that moves away from the more predictable structures found here with the spaghetti western-type loop and long instrumental fadeout adding atmosphere.

It’s maybe important to point out that the deluxe version of this album, and I am loath to review these ‘versions’, which are essentially just marketing tools and undoubtedly cynical, contains four of the most compelling, sonically-challenging and vibrant tracks contained under the “Dirty Gold” banner.  Admittedly one of these is the previously-released “New York”, but listen to the baroque and oddly beautiful “Rose-Tinted Suicide” and marvel at what could (should) have been achieved. The decision to still include these tracks, albeit in this unabridged version of the album, confirms that the young star’s talent is still very much intact. It might be of course that Angel Haze herself wants to distance herself from these more nuanced and disturbing tracks but one can only hope that she changes her mind and finds again the bright light that’s hidden beneath the dirt here, the one that attracted us to her in the first place. The three-star rating is based on the Deluxe Edition.

BangerzAt some point over the last six months Miley Cyrus has stared the current state of Pop Culture directly in its confused and salacious eye and declared ‘it’s on!’  The combination of a short haircut (I know), high cut leotards (I know!), two very good songs, twerking and the most attention hungry VMA performance in years has managed to create the same impact, the same level of horror and disgust as Madonna did when she first rolled around an empty stage in a wedding dress singing “Like A Virgin”, also at the VMAs, in 1984. Both artists understand the rules and both appear to break many when really they know exactly how much they can get away with. Star power remains as such only when the connection is fully made and maintained and right now Miley Cyrus wants your attention all the time; “Bangerz” will go a long way in determining whether she gets it or not.

As it often the case with these kinds of post-Disney reinventions, Miley Cyrus’ juggernaut of an album (to the Cyrus uninitiated it may seem as though this is her debut when in fact it’s her third album) is steered by the r’n’b producers and song writers du jour, in this instance relative newcomer Mike Will Made It and the evergreen Pharrell Williams. In the case of Williams it features some of his most engaging work in a long time and MWMI shows a diversity to his sound not yet demonstrated on such a vast level. Importantly they understand how to push and develop the pop component and therefore, in this instance, the artist. The surprise for many will be Miley Cyrus herself, the overbearing sound of controversy (Sinead O’ Connor is on her fifth ‘open letter’ to Cyrus at the time of writing, maybe the next should be sealed) having the negative effect, along with several positives of course, of making her hard to hear. Cyrus can really sing, passionately and with humour and drama when required or she feels like it; she is extremely present throughout; something that artists such as Britney Spears or Rihanna can still struggle with.

The first half of the deceptively named “Bangerz” (it’s a fifty-fifty ballad and up-tempo split) is not the strongest. The two massive singles which both feature early on certainly stand out; the opposing ends of the Cyrus vehicle, they are two of this year’s best. Opening the album with a ballad, the “Ray of Light” drum machine skittering “Adore You” is brave but its bland fawning won’t pull you in. The Salt n Pepa-indebted title track featuring a creamy sounding Britney Spears and the twangy, doesy-doe of “4x4” (containing the bizarre lyric ‘driving so fast about to piss on myself’, one of many very odd moments) are both gimmicky and therefore disposable. Unlike the fantastic “Hollaback Girl” (Gwen Stefani) from which this genre was partly born, both songs have forgotten to include a decent chorus. “My Darling” is a mawkish mess and an, albeit imaginative, attempt to uptake Ben E Kings “Stand By Me”.

“#GETITRIGHT” just about sums up the remainder of “Bangerz”. A joyous and naive, guitar-led groove which captures what Madonna was aiming for when she worked with Pharrell but failed to achieve on her flat attempt at urban pop, “Hard Candy”. Williams here produces one of the very best, if not the most triumphant track, on the album with Cyrus sounding ecstatic and utterly contagious. “Drive” is an appropriately named juddering and in turn undulating, excellent metallic ballad. The melancholic drop at the end of the lyric ‘drive my heart into the night, you can drop the keys off in the morning’ hits hard, twerking it seems only being part of Miley’s increasingly sad story. “FU” is another deranged, “I Put A Spell On You”- riffing and swinging show tune underscored by a whomp, whomp dubstep and “Do My Thang” is “We Can’t Stop”’s trappier and more bratty cousin; ‘I’m a southern belle, crazier than hell’. Indeed.

The two tracks which end “Bangerz” are interesting in that they are ballads which I imagine could have appeared on Cyrus’ earlier releases before her ultimate rebirth, the only songs here that this may apply to. I haven’t heard any of Miley Cyrus’ material from this time as I don’t feel that it’s necessary (and I don’t think I would enjoy it) but there is a strong, country feel to them and this is after all a strong part of Cyrus’ heritage (god-daughter of Dolly Parton and daughter of “Achy-Breaky” father Billy Ray and all). “Maybe You’re Right” is more traditional in sound and song structure where “Someone Else” is an insane rave ballad with speed -sung verses and staccato stabs of vocal puncturing the chorus,  It fades on a repeated, whooshing synth noise and the album ends; it is satisfyingly odd.

There are probably two more number one songs here to follow on from the two already achieved before the album was released and means that in 2013 Miley Cyrus is a phenomenon. She can follow in the footsteps of Britney, Beyonce, Gaga and, lest we forget, Madonna. All of those artists understand and luxuriate in artifice and have perfected the other art of being worshipped. They also share a seemingly innate understanding of what constitutes the right song and how to fully inhabit it.  Right now at least, Miley Cyrus has also synced into their groove and “Bangerz” is the highly enjoyable but flawed soundtrack that will accompany her to the next instalment. Whether it will be as engrossing as this one, who knows so I would suggest that you begin to listen and start to fall in love with her, at least for now.