LISTEN UP

Kesha Confronts Her Demons—Including Alleged Tormentor Dr. Luke—on New Album ‘Rainbow’

The pop superstar’s soul-baring third studio album chronicles her journey out of the darkness and into the light.

“This is a hymn for the hymnless / Kids with no religion,” Kesha sings early on in Rainbow, molding her own profane religion out of lived experiences rather than an austere set of rules passed down through generations. “I know that I’m perfect, even though I’m fucked up,” is more of a rallying crying for a generation that rejects the “Lord, make me pure but not yet” type of prayer that favors absolution before our final resting place.

Rainbow, Kesha’s third studio album, is all about embracing who she is, what she’s been made into, and the woman she’ll continue to be—as she raps over hypnotic beats.

After she burst back onto the music scene with the emotional lead single “Praying,” it might have seemed like Kesha was interested in a brand-new musical direction. She did after all pen an essay for the Lenny Letter in which she described channeling her “feelings of severe hopelessness and depression” into penning a song about how she eventually overcame her obstacles. It wouldn’t have been surprising if she took a detour similar to Lady Gaga’s country mashup Joanne. But while Rainbow does take those necessary emotional detours (and a few of those country deep-dives), what it most excels at is imbuing Kesha’s raucous glam rock, hip-hop, and pop aesthetic with more gravitas than her previous albums.

“Bastards” is a bold opening to Rainbow that calls out the people in the world who choose hatred and bullying over compassion. Describing it to NPR, Kesha said: “[It’s] a song that I wrote by myself on a guitar at about 4 in the morning. I wrote that one because I don’t understand why people are so fucking mean to each other, but I can’t change it and writing is how I cope with everything. I wrote this song for people who have a hard time understanding that, too. I just don’t like bullies, and kindness is not overrated.”

It’s the continuation of a topic Kesha broached on her first album, Animal, with the track “Backstabber,” yet whereas that song assumed more of a juvenile “it’s lonely at the top” perspective—no different from other pop stars lashing out at their legions of haters, e.g. Lindsay Lohan’s “Rumors” and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”—“Bastards” feels more authentic. Through Kesha’s well-publicized hellish journey and our collective experience of 2017, it’s not hard to see the intense cruelty of the world around us.

Kesha’s always criticized the “bastards” of the world—the creepy guy in the bar who thinks he can sway her with his brand new Benz (“Sleazy”), the lecherous old guy who won’t leave her alone (“Dinosaur”), or even a braggadocious asshole (“Blah Blah Blah”)—but on Rainbow, when she chants “I’m a motherfucking woman,” it sounds like a call to arms. She’s channeled her newfound independence into a new rock anthem more reminiscent of Liz Phair’s 1994 debut than the type of “I can pay my own bills” Destiny’s Child knockoffs that most of today’s pop stars churn out.

It’s the specificity that makes Kesha’s songs cut deeper than they have before. She’s always been an admirable pop star taken far less seriously than she deserved due to her penchant for raunchy lyrics and boozy white-girl rapping, yet her lyrical prowess is out in full force on Rainbow. Kesha’s never been the best vocalist; rather, she gets by on raw emotion—the kind that once made Madonna a superstar and icon for young women in the ’80s. This earnestness works in Kesha’s favor when she dives into country music, as on the kiss-off track “Hunt You Down,” the wistfully optimistic “Spaceship,” or her duet with Dolly Parton on “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You).” The latter is a cover of Parton’s 1980 hit from the album Dolly, Dolly, Dolly, which was written by Kesha’s mom, Pebe Sebert.

The inclusion of Sebert is the final element of Kesha’s new, self-proclaimed spirituality. From “Hymn”—where she sings “if there’s a heaven, don’t care if we get in”—to the pronouncement of her femininity on “Woman,” Kesha has emerged from the toxic bastards of the world to find solace in her history and the power of womanhood. Her mother’s career as a songwriter led to her own, and Kesha continues the tradition by not only paying homage to Parton, but including the long-unproduced song “Godzilla,” which her mother wrote years ago. The bridge in “Godzilla” declares: “While everyone else is running and screaming / I just love being with you.” They began as Sebert’s words to her daughter and now they are Kesha’s: a refrain that helped her through her depression while recording Rainbow and simultaneously battling her alleged tormentor.

Rainbow is about the oral traditions passed down through generations—like Sebert’s songwriting, Parton imparting wisdom of memories lost (“Sometimes at night, I think of old lovers I’ve known / I remember how holding them helped me not feel so alone”), or Kesha herself sharing homemade hymns with her fans. Kesha infuses Sebert’s whimsy and Parton’s reminiscence into a droll artistry of her own. She doesn’t merely think of old flames to keep her warm at night, she also treats her loneliness with booze (“Don’t buy me a drink / I make my money”) and bloodlust (“Just know that if you fuck around / boy, I’ll hunt you down”). It is Kesha’s quest for her own self-worth and spirituality, leading to the discovery that she is her own salvation.