- Lady Gaga released her sixth studio album, “Chromatica,” on Friday.
- We listened straight through the 16-song tracklist and wrote down our first impressions of each one.
- We thought the electrifying pop anthems were a welcome return to form for Gaga – particularly after the rustic but snoozy album “Joanne” and the salt-of-the-earth sincerity of “Shallow.”
- However, although the album had some very high points, the overall effect wasn’t extraordinarily compelling.
- The best tracks on the album are “Rain On Me,” “Free Woman,” and “Sour Candy,” while “911,” “Replay,” and “Sine from Above” were all ruled as skips.
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Lady Gaga released her sixth studio album, “Chromatica,” on Friday.
Gaga’s highly anticipated return to electro-pop comes after a seven-week delay, caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
It also comes after an extended detour into lounge-singer jazz (2014’s “Cheek to Cheek” with Tony Bennett), rustic rock with acoustic country undertones (2016’s “Joanne”), and a salt-of-the-earth makeover fit for a vintage Hollywood starlet (2018’s “A Star Is Born” with Bradley Cooper).
Notably, we thought its electrifying pop bangers were a welcome return to form for Gaga. Singles like “Rain On Me” with Ariana Grande and “Sour Candy” with BLACKPINK, as well as liberation anthems like “Free Woman” and “1000 Doves,” yield some of Gaga’s best work yet.
However, although the album had some very high points, the overall effect wasn’t extraordinarily compelling. We were underwhelmed by its three interludes, and outright disliked three more songs: “911,” “Replay,” and “Sine from Above.”
Here is what we thought of each song on “Chromatica” upon first listen. (Skip to the end to see the only songs worth listening to and the album’s final score.)
“Chromatica I” is a decent album opener.
Ahlgrim: I’m never mad about an instrumental or atmospheric intro track because I love the melodrama – and because I enjoy an immersive album listening experience. Plus, I appreciate how “Chromatica I” blends into “Alice” very smoothly.
All that being said, I will admit that if an intro isn’t absolutely essential to the album’s vibe, I will generally just start on the second track during future listens (Billie Eilish’s “!!!!!!!!” and Ariana Grande’s “Raindrops (An Angel Cried)” are more good examples of solid, scene-setting opening tracks that I tend to skip over).
For that reason, I have to rule “Chromatica I” a background song.
Larocca: The album opens with an instrumental track that feels like it’s opening a fantasy movie. It works because, as Gaga previously stated, “Chromatica” is a place unlike Earth in her mind, so I’m not mad at the theatricality of taking a beat to transport listeners to this otherworldly space.
That said, it’s not something anyone’s going to add to a playlist – but it doesn’t need to be. I’m sure there will be plenty of upbeat hits to come that will gladly take this song’s spot on your list of workout jams or party anthems.
“Alice” does a nice job highlighting the overarching themes of “Chromatica.”
Ahlgrim: This is classic Lady Gaga in all her blood-pumping, bass-thumping glory. “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” has become an oft-used reference in pop music, and I was worried that it would feel forced or overdrawn, but I actually really appreciate the way it compliments the themes of the album; it makes sense to imagine Gaga as a wide-eyed, curious Alice type and “Chromatica” as a surrealist third space in between earth and escapism.
Gaga previously told Paper magazine that “Chromatica” isn’t another planet, but “a perspective…not a fantasy.” So again, like Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s iconic story, it’s neither tangibly real nor entirely imagined.
I’m a sucker for a gracefully executed extended metaphor, so this song works for me on many different levels.
Larocca: The transition from “Chromatica I” to “Alice” is so clean and brings you right into this thumping “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired bop.
That said, I don’t find “Alice” to be incredibly original or inventive due to Wonderland having been pulled as inspiration by various pop artists already. I would have expected something more creative for Gaga’s true first track on the album, but there’s still time.
Regardless, even if it’s not the most unique concept, “Alice” is thoroughly enjoyable and acts as an effective reminder of Gaga’s pop queen glory. I’m certainly intrigued to dig deeper into Gaga’s futurist world.
“Stupid Love” joins the pantheon of Gaga’s most popular and enduring singles.
Ahlgrim: I’m not over-the-moon crazy about “Stupid Love,” but I certainly don’t dislike it. It does remind me of Gaga’s early hits, like “Poker Face” and “Just Dance.” I think it’s the chorus that sounds so distinctly Gaga: repetitive, yes, but sticky. After I hear it once, it bounces around in my brain for hours.
That being said, I like “Stupid Love” far more than “Poker Face” and “Just Dance” and pretty much any other dance floor anthem that she’s best known for – except maybe “Bad Romance,” because that music video plays in my head on a loop.
Larocca: “Stupid Love” was the first single off the album, so naturally I’ve listened to it multiple times by now – and I love it. It’s a return to the pop master Gaga who created massive hits like “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face.”
In my mind, this is exactly who Gaga’s persona has been trying to emulate ever since her inception. It’s almost ironic that the song’s central refrain is “I want your stupid love” (which she inflects to sound an awful lot like “I want just to be loved”) considering this track embodies everything fans have loved about her since the very beginning of her career.
This isn’t a music video review, but I will also say the music video did a stellar job of setting the scene of “Chromatica” up for fans. Gaga is definitely a visual artist, and that’s evident by the dystopic world she created for the “Stupid Love” video.
“Rain On Me” (with Ariana Grande) is easily one of the most fun songs Gaga has ever released.
Ahlgrim: I am over-the-moon crazy about this song. “Rain On Me” is a smash. I enjoy every single second of it – from the weird, robotic little ditty that opens the song until Gaga’s final, resolute enunciation of “me.”
And while we’re on that subject, I love the way Gaga sing-declares “Rain. On. Me.” I love how her punchy vocals twist and tangle with Ariana Grande’s anti-gravity pipes. I can’t possibly imagine a collaborator who would have been better suited to enhance Gaga’s style on this song, but also hold her own and add so much zest and sparkle.
Knowing how much Gaga and Grande bonded over their hardships and resilience while making this song only makes it that much more euphoric to listen to.
Larocca: Grande was the perfect partner to team up with for this uplifting, futuristic club anthem about being glad you’re alive, even if you wish you didn’t need to endure so much pain to get here.
As we know, Grande’s “Thank U Next” was a powerfully emotive album – and the best project of 2019, regardless of what the Recording Academy believes – that was written in a pure state of catharsis, so there’s truly no one better to team up with for a pulsing pop song about overcoming your own trauma than her.
Every single moment of this song is perfect, from Grande’s angelic vocals that soar above the heavy synths to Gaga’s forceful sing-talking that adds another level of depth to this sonic playground.
This album is a success for “Rain on Me” alone and I will happily listen to this on repeat forever.
“Free Woman” is both a powerful statement and an irresistible pop anthem.
Ahlgrim: I was thrilled when I heard the lyric that Gaga had teased on Instagram – “This is my dance floor, I fought for” – because I found the phrase really compelling.
Happily, I find the rest of the song equally as compelling, especially in terms of its lyrics. In the past, I’ve often found Gaga’s songwriting to be too obvious or kitschy for my taste, but the blunt confidence in this song really works for me.
Knowing that “Free Woman” was ignited by Gaga overcoming a sexual assault, rejecting the concept of victimhood and embracing her own body again, makes this song feel like a hard-won, cathartic, futuristic pop utopia – and that’s exactly what I hoped to feel from this album.
Larocca: I’m obsessed with the chorus on this one: “I’m not nothing without a steady hand / I’m not nothing unless I know I can / I’m still something if I don’t got a man /I’m a free woman, oh-oh.”
“Free Woman” is an intimate, triumphant exploration of healing and moving forward after enduring a sexual assault and I’m so glad it exists.
“Fun Tonight” is perfect for dance floor catharsis.
Ahlgrim: I felt lukewarm about “Fun Tonight” for the first minute or so, but I think the song does a really nice job of building to a swelling sort of catharsis, without giving in to the cliché of a larger-than-life EDM drop.
I can definitely see myself jumping around in a multi-coloured club while the whole crowd sings, “I’m not having fun tonight.” That tension and juxtaposition give this song some extra intrigue, beyond a simple electro-pop dance anthem.
Larocca: I kinda wish this one didn’t try so hard to be a club banger. The message is really strong: “You love the paparazzi, love the fame / Even though you know it causes me pain / I feel like I’m in a prison hell / Stick my hands through the steel bars and yell” – but I wish Gaga took a softer approach to this one, sonically.
I’m craving a more stripped-back moment from this album, and this would have been the perfect opportunity to trade out the synths for violins. However, I do adore the idea of forming a pop song around the line “I’m not having fun tonight” and I’d love to see her perform this one slowed down on the piano.
“Chromatica II” is just another instrumental interlude.
Ahlgrim: I’m starting to think these interludes are designed purely to give listeners a breather, so the album isn’t just a constant onslaught of fluorescent electro-pop.
While I appreciate that intention, unless these interludes are placed to separate chunks of distinct musical styles in the tracklist, or serve some tangible purpose to advance its momentum, I’m not sure they were necessary to include.
Larocca: A short interlude that does a good job of transitioning from the pain-filled “Fun Tonight” to the robotic “911.”
“911” is the worst song on the album.
Ahlgrim: “911” sounds like it’s confused about its identity. It might fit on a soundtrack for a cheesy romantic-action movie that’s set in a stereotypical version of Tokyo, but I don’t feel like it works on this album.
And I imagine its exaggerated robotic vibe would only grow more and more annoying with every listen.
Larocca: There’s a lot of emotion folded into the first half of the album, that it’s almost jarring how quickly she sheds any semblance of warmth to produce this futuristic, robo track. It’s so manufactured that I don’t think I’d ever want to revisit this one, unfortunately.
We couldn’t agree whether “Plastic Doll” is a high point or a forgettable detour.
Ahlgrim: I like this song a lot, mostly on principle. “I’m no toy for a real boy / If you’re a real boy” could sound painfully trite, but in Gaga’s hands, it’s brandished like a bedazzled knife.
It also doesn’t hurt that “Plastic Doll” is super catchy. I love how Gaga uses her breathy falsetto in the chorus, and the production is punchy and scintillating, without sounding overdone or overwhelming. It’s a lot, don’t get me wrong, but given the central theme of artificiality – plus my own mental image of Gaga destroying a Barbie Dreamhouse from the inside – I think it works.
Larocca: For a song that’s as synth-packed as this one, it’s disappointing that I have zero urge to dance. I just want to skip ahead to a better song.
Note: We couldn’t come to a consensus on “Plastic Doll,” so we decided to award it .5 in our final ranking, as a compromise.
“Sour Candy” (with BLACKPINK) is the perfect pop collaboration.
Ahlgrim: When I heard Jennie sing, “If you wanna fix me, then let’s break up here and now,” I literally made the “chef’s kiss” motion with my hand, even though I’m sitting completely alone.
This is a perfectly intoxicating pop song. There’s really nothing I dislike about it.
I also just love that Gaga enlisted BLACKPINK for this song. The collaboration feels so natural, and the different vocal styles of the five women add so much flavour to the song’s sleek, stylish production.
Larocca: Adding BLACKPINK to “Sour Candy” was a true stroke of genius. At just two minutes and 37 seconds, it’s quite short and the only thing negative I have to say about the track is I wish the K-pop group got to stay in this area for a bit longer.
“Enigma” is a rich, exhilarating club banger.
Ahlgrim: This is, essentially, the ninth straight synthetic club banger I’ve listened to at 9 am on a weekday, and I didn’t expect to still feel so engaged – but “Enigma” is actually one of my favourites so far. It’s honest and undemanding without being too simplistic, and it kept my head bobbing the entire time. The dense, rich beat in this song is simply exquisite.
Larocca: The build-up in the intro of “Enigma” is pure Gaga and I love it. This one fits well amongst the rest of the singer’s extensive discography.
“Replay” is conceptually strong, but isn’t particularly memorable as a song.
Ahlgrim: I deeply appreciate this song conceptually; the “storyline” feature on Spotify reveals that Gaga “refused to not allow this song to be on the album,” because she felt, “‘Chromatica’ cannot exist without an abstract explanation of what it’s like to be triggered if you have PTSD.”
As someone who’s had flashes of PTSD in the past (suspected by doctors, but never officially diagnosed), this really resonates with me. I agree that “Chromatica” deserves a sort of raw honesty about what Gaga’s been through, and what compels her to keep going.
However, we’re on the 12th track and I can feel my brain getting tired. In terms of production, “Replay” doesn’t do anything particularly new or interesting, and I probably won’t come back to this song after I’m finished with the album.
Larocca: “Every single day, yeah, I dig a grave / Then I sit inside it, wondering if I’ll behave” is a powerful line. I appreciate what Gaga is trying to do here, but I’m not enthralled by the song as a whole.
“Chromatica III” is the shortest and last interlude.
Ahlgrim: My biggest compliment for the “Chromatica” interludes is that they’re short and sweet. Interludes typically have no business stretching longer than a minute or two, and “Chromatica III” runs for a glorious 27 seconds. It’s also my favourite interlude so far; I like the gentle sound of rain in the background, and I’m a sucker for orchestral strings in a pop album.
Larocca: Another interlude. I like the violins on this one.
“Sine from Above” (with Elton John) feels forced and out of place.
Ahlgrim: The first verse and pre-chorus of this song gave me flashbacks to “Electra Heart” by Marina and the Diamonds, both in terms of stylistic choices and Gaga’s vocal tone.
Now, that should be a compliment, considering “Electra Heart” is one of my favourite albums of all time, but it really just made me think that Marina could do it better.
I’m also not totally sold on Elton John’s feature. I don’t think he quite fits into this sonic landscape. Collaborating with him feels like Gaga’s half-baked attempt to bridge the gap between the rustic, classic Hollywood vibes of “Joanne” and the dance floor onslaught of “Chromatica.”
Larocca: Adding Elton John to this was… a choice. I’m not sure it really makes sense, and I spent the majority of this song trying to figure out why he’s here.
“1000 Doves” is a soaring moment of intimate lyrics and sparkling synths.
Ahlgrim: Maybe it’s because I feel like I’m about to summit a mountain made out of ’90s house beats and my limbs are getting weak, but I’m zoning out while listening to “1000 Doves.” I don’t have any distinct thoughts to vocalize about it.
Larocca: “1000 Doves” is where “Chromatica” fully clicks. Gaga soars across a sparkling soundscape, her anguish palpable in her voice and reflected in her lyrics. The journey from “I need you to listen to me, please don’t leave me” to “If you love me, then just set me free / And if you don’t, then baby, leave,” is a cathartic one with a gorgeous payoff.
Ahlgrim: OK, me again, about an hour later. Upon urging from Courteney – who was scandalized that I listed it as a “skip” – I gave “1000 Doves” another listen. I realise that I didn’t really pay attention the first time, and I am woman enough to admit that I was wrong!
The way Gaga builds from her emotionally raw first verse to the triumphant, soaring chorus – and then allowing the song to swell and crash around her – creates such a cleansing, prismatic experience. Lyrically, this song might be the strongest on the album. It gives me intense “crying under the disco ball” vibes, like a Gen Z version of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own” (a song that,ahem, I really, really love).
“Babylon” is a high-concept, stomping pop romp that brings vintage Gaga hits to mind.
Ahlgrim: I really believe in the power of an album closer, and “Babylon” feels like the right choice. It sprinkles in enough of “walk, walk, fashion baby” drama to have an air of nostalgia – a clever decision, given that Gaga evokes a sense of returning to previous eras, singing “We can party like it’s B.C.” – while still managing to sound fresh and modern. In other words, it has strains of vintage Gaga, but doesn’t feel out of place on this album.
I also appreciate how she recontextualizes the damaging nature of gossip within the narrative of Babylon, which the Bible presents as the root of humanity’s struggles with communication across countries and cultures.
I think Gaga is at her best when she’s serving high conceptual art, packaged in a party song with a beat you can strut to, and “Babylon” is just that.
Larocca: Fans of early Gaga will be thrilled with “Babylon.” It’s her version of Madonna’s “Vogue” and it’s killer. It’s exactly what was missing from Gaga’s discography, and exactly what note she needed to end “Chromatica” on. She’s strutting a catwalk all the way off the planet Chromatica and into outer space.
Final Grade: 6.9/10
Ahlgrim: I am the sort of person who really respects Lady Gaga as a vocalist and admires her artistry, but I rarely gravitate towards her albums when I listen to music in my downtime.
Don’t get me wrong: I will bounce around and scream every single word if “Born This Way” comes on at a club, and I will defend Gaga’s purist pop instincts until the day I die. I’m so glad she decided to reclaim the dance floor, and I’m even more thrilled that such a euphoric album was sparked by confronting and overcoming her demons.
But “Chromatica” stays true to the way I personally vibe with Gaga’s songs. I enjoyed it, I respect it, and I can’t wait to dance to “Fun Tonight” at a bar in the Lower East Side (whenever New Yorkers can go out again, that is), but I won’t be listening to the tracklist straight through on a regular basis.
I have listened to “Rain On Me” approximately 157 times in the past week, however, so she will enjoy a prominent spot on my summer 2020 playlist.
Larocca: I went into this album wanting to love it, and in places I really did – but I also came away feeling slightly disappointed, which may be a byproduct of Gaga putting out most of her best tracks before the album’s release.
My favourite Gaga song of all time remains “You and I,” so there also wasn’t much here for me, unfortunately. That’s probably why I was craving some sort of reprieve from the EDM-infused tracklist. But that said, the run from the introductory interlude to “Chromatica II” was an incredible ride through both Gaga’s complex emotional state and her dystopian imaginary world. I stand by saying this album was successful for producing the already-iconic “Rain on Me.”
Overall, the maximalist club bangers can get tiring if you consume them all together at once, but I’m sure most of these songs are worthy one-off additions to any playlist, and I appreciate Gaga’s commitment to a specific vision. I just don’t have the bandwidth to live in the world of Chromatica – but I’m happy to take short day trips.
Worth listening to:
“Rain On Me”
“Sine from Above”
*Final album score based on songs per category (1 point for “Worth listening to,” .5 for “Background music,” .5 for “Split decision,” 0 for “Press skip”).
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