Typical of today’s Internet buzz artists, Lana Del Rey’s backlash began before her first album even arrived, from the “Saturday Night Live” appearance that’s been deemed by the public and Brian Williams as one of the worst in the history of the show to the constant questioning of her authenticity as an artist. If your You Tube video has over 21 million views, fair or not, you basically have a bull’s eye on your face and even your lips can be the center of controversy. That said, if Del Rey managed to deliver on her debut album, much of the hullabaloo surrounding her could potentially go away.
Although Del Rey’s breakout single “Video Games” was masterfully done, a whole album filled with string laden, retro-ballads would certainly paint Del Rey into a corner. Unfortunately most of the styles she tries on feel a bit forced. It’s almost as if she’s trying to make good on her early claim that she is a “gangster Nancy Sinatra.” The album starts strong with the title track. It’s exactly the kind haunting ballad Del Rey has shown she is capable of, even as hip-hop samples are subtly slipped in. But it doesn’t take long for the cracks on the record to show as the song is immediately followed by a bafflingly unconvincing “Off to the Races.” Del Rey’s heavy alto and dramatic string accompaniments don’t suit lines about “sipping on your black Cristal (oh yeah).” And this sets up the paradigm for the rest of the album. Born to Die essentially comprises two variations of Del Rey – the dark, dive bar lingering balladeer and the ill fittingly dated hip-hop infused pop artist.
Many of Born to Die‘s lesser moments happen when these hip-hop elements surface. Cheap lines like “Feeling ill like Drake tonight” on “Summertime Sadness” don’t sit real well, but it’s when Del Rey’s lethargic flow is introduced that the album really hits its low points. “National Anthem” starts off with a pretty cheap recreation of “Bittersweet Symphony,” but when Del Rey’s unbearable rapping starts, it gets pretty difficult to listen to. “Video Games” succeeded largely on the strength of the song’s mystery, but unfortunately, too many of Born to Die‘s better songs have the mystery zapped from them with clumsy lyrics. Take “Radio,” for instance. The track has an undeniably memorable chorus, but it’s mired by clichés like “how do you like me now?“, which is sung with far too much conviction. There are just far too many cringe-worthy choruses like “Every time I close my eyes/ It’s like a dark paradise.” The disappointingly weak lines completely detract from several of the album’s better musical moments. Party girl themes don’t match the stately production and heavy vocals given to many of the better tracks.
Of course, this isn’t always the case. The aforementioned “Video Games” and “Born to Die,” as well as “Blue Jeans,” are all perfect encapsulations of what Del Rey is capable of. Likewise, closer “Lucky Ones” is a beautiful ballad even if it is a bit over the top. Not surprisingly, these songs are all in the same vein: the haunting ballad. To date, it’s the one area Del Rey seems perfectly suited for.
This all brings us to Born to Die‘s ultimate shortfall; it’s just far too short on ideas – good or bad – to justify its hour-long runtime. There’s only so many ways Del Rey can tell us about her exploits with guys she happens to like despite being bad boys. The album’s best tracks would make a fine EP, but they take up a little more than a quarter of the record. Given these statistics, it’s hard to see Born to Die as anything but a telling letdown rather than a missed opportunity. And if Del Rey’s flat singing on “SNL” charged up the public, her aforementioned flow is certainly not going to keep the naysayers as bay.
Nicola Roberts – Cinderella’s Eyes
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions – Bavarian Fruit Bread
Florrie – Call 911
Video: Lana Del Rey – “Video Games”