Bebe Rexha Pours out Pure Pop on Debut Album ‘Expectations’

Bebe Rexha has written songs for such disparate artists as David Guetta, Selena Gomez, Iggy Azalea, Tinashe, and Nick Jonas. Among her compositions is Eminem and Rihanna’s grammy-winning “The Monster.” Any songwriter who can turn out hits in so many genres deserves a platform of her own, and so, Rexha has finally released her debut studio album, “Expectations.” Although seeming gimmicky and forced at times, it’s an impressively versatile display of pop songwriting and performance.

“Ferrari” starts the album of anthemic fashion, with Rexha pulling out all her trademark tricks. There are the country-tinged stylings, the R&B crooning, an open-mouth epic bleating chorus, and Karaoke histrionics. It’s like her whole hit songwriting oeuvre condensed into one song and delivered with no filler, to really pack a pop punch. The song has a distinctly “good time’ vibe, with lyrics like “I’m a Ferrari pulled off on Mulholland Drive,” and “Whoo-ooh, ooh-ooh.” A closer look, however, reveals darker undertones, with lines like, “Living in the fast lane’s getting kind of lonely.” Judging from Rexha’s prolific and varied output as a songwriter, it’s no surprise that she feels this way. The relatable sentiment is about being on the go constantly without taking time to enjoy life. This segues neatly into the following track, “I’m a Mess,” possibly the catchiest song on the record. Rexha’s vocal affectations here can come across as a bit much, for instance when she puts on her baby voice, over rolls her tongue, and stretches her vowels as if she fancies herself incredibly sexy. This is only a minor quibble, however, as the infectiousness of the song more than makes up for it. The musical arrangement, with handclaps, guitar, synths, and vaguely gospel backing vocals befits Rexha. And the classic lines, “It’s gonna be a good, good life / That’s what my therapist say” make the song.  

Rexha keeps the bangers coming with “2 Souls on FIre,” featuring rapper Quavo of Migos fame. The two have exceptional chemistry. The instrumental is, again, guitar-based, a rather unique choice for this strain of pop, and it adds a lot of character to the sound. There are some ridiculously slick trap drum fills that situate the song in unprecedentedly dancey territory, and the whole affair is pulled off masterfully. “Shining Star” has Spanish guitar, and finds Rexha occasionally assuming a jazzy intonation, sounding a bit like Amy Winehouse. There’s a busy handclap-laden beat reminiscent of the Jamaican “diwali riddim.” At this point, it should be more than clear that this is a pop album of the very poppiest type, but the next song, “Knees,” takes it to new heights, managing to polish off any edge whatsoever, and sounding as if designed to be played at a low volume in department stores. Whether or not this is your cup of tea, Rexha does sound on top of her game, as usual, and her chemistry with the guitar player is exemplary. “I Got You” brings the return of the dreaded baby voice, accompanied by similarly, audibly offensive fare, including a vaguely tribal beat, goofy siren sounds, and Rexha pronouncing the word “I” as “Aaaaaahhhh,” as if attempting to infuse her delivery with attitude and street cred, and failing majestically. She also sounds as if scrunching up her lips into the tightest possible position, batting her eyelashes, and prompting listeners worldwide to sigh and roll their eyes in unison.

“Self Control” is another supremely catchy number. Rexha’s inflections here, along with the syncopated beat, are a bit reminiscent of Shakira. The pre chorus sounds as if written for a Disney movie, like Rexha has suddenly assumed cartoon form and is gazing at the sky, waving her arms, prancing about, and bellowing. “Sad” is another dancey tune, a reminder of how much of a difference percussion can make. Taut snares in a tight, syncopated shuffle give the song an irresistible momentum. Rexha seems to really repeat the chorus a lot, leaving the audience wanting less. On the other hand, she sings with a confidence that is truly impressive. “Mine” is another of the album’s catchiest song, demonstrating Rexha’s ability to effortlessly pen songs that stick with you upon first listen. It’s a bit on the strange side, however, with Rexha apparently trying to affect some sort of vaguely Carribean accent, further confounded by liberal use of autotune. “Steady” is a club-ready tune with a hip-hop beat and creeping synth bass. Rexha sings in the more breathy end of her register, and it suits her well. Tory Lanez makes an appearance, and his performance is flawless, an effective counterpoint to Rexha’s

The record takes a reflective turn with “Don’t Get Any Closer,” an especially poignant moment. It’s another saccharine, stargazing number with Rexha’s soaring vocals seemingly meant to shatter glasses. It’s also one of her most impressive performances, really showing off her remarkable singing chops. “Grace,” a plaintive, piano-led piece further captures the feeling of the preceding track, with more Disney princess posturing, and gushy violins. “Pillow” is an emotional climax, with the lyrics “holding my pillow, pretending it’s you.” Rexha’s falsetto here is truly something else, and unlike some of the gimmicky moments on the record, every moment of this song seems authentic. Finally, “Meant to Be,” Rexha’s hit with country duo Florida Georgia Line, closes the album. The unabashed twang offers some entertaining variety, and the stripped-down arrangement and lighthearted vibe bring the album to a graceful end.

It’s always refreshing to see songwriters step out of the shadows and get some of the credit they deserve. Bebe Rexha already seems groomed for pop stardom, so it’s a natural transition. On “Expectations,” she hops genres ambitiously without seeming too reckless in her maneuvers. She shuttles between R&B diva theatrics, sentimental balladry, and country crooning, always with a glossy pop sheen and some serious vocal cords. It’s a promising debut from a vibrant and versatile voice.      

Expectations” is available June 22 on Apple Music.