Rita Ora Demonstrates Pop as Catharsis on ‘Phoenix’

UK singer Rita Ora started at number one in her country, with her 2012 debut “Ora.” Such a promising start can be frustrating in of itself, as it leaves so little higher to rise. Ora went on to suffer record label issues with Roc Nation, only allowing her to release that one album over the last six years, in spite of her recording several records. Finally settling with Roc Naton, and signing with Atlantic Records, Rita has been releasing singles since summer 2017 to her follow-up album “Phoenix.” In light of her recent struggles, Ora has commented, “I was really down, and then I was really angry, and then I was really frustrated, and then I was really happy.” The new album is exactly what you would expect from the statement. Musically, it’s upbeat, buoyant, EDM-infused pop perfection, but lyrically, it’s an emotional rollercoaster. Moreover, the songs are sequenced as to constitute a narrative, which ultimately ends up as uplifting as the music that accompanies it.   

Opener “Anywhere” seems fittingly born out of Ora’s struggles. Vivid lines like “Bloodshot eyes looking for the sun” convey her aggravation, and set the stage for an emotionally fraught album. The song erupts into a bubblegum chorus of taut synth bass and warped, pitch-shifted vocal snippets, with overriding lyrics about running “Over the hills and far away / A million miles from L.A.) For listeners less inclined to music so outlandishly trendy and overproduced, the music seems to effectively simulate the lyrical sentiment. “Let You Love Me” finds Ora qualifying her talk of running away, now pondering, “ I think I run away sometimes / Whenever I get too vulnerable / That’s not your fault,” then acknowledging her apparent bipolarity, asking, “What’s the matter with me?… I wish that I could let you love me.” She gives into the latter urge, judging from the fist-bumping fare of the chorus — inarguably the sound of reveling in the moment. Like nearly all other songs here, this one features excessive sidechain compression, like EDM on steroids. This is paired, however, with some originally jagged arrangements. The trend is particularly notable on, “New Look,” on which the sound is cupped and clipped, taking the sidechain phenomenon to the next level, and functioning to convey tension in the most millenial pop way ever. Continuing the manic depressive tendencies, Ora’s coy evasion on “Let You Love Me” here turns swiftly into suffocating fanaticism, expressed in lines such as, “See, it’s not that I don’t trust you / I just wanna know every place that you go.”

“Lonely Together” is technically an Avicii track, featuring Ora on vocals — and you can certainly tell it from the chorus. Ora here sings of feeling compelled, after a drink or two, to see a former romantic partner about whom you have reservations. Continuing the pattern of conflicting drives, she declares, “I might hate myself tomorrow / But I’m on my way tonight / At the bottom of a bottle / You’re the poison in the wine.” “Your Song” follows, a minimal collage of pops, clicks, and fluorescent, cartoonish sound candy, over which we find Ora ostensibly continuing the narrative from the night before, singing, “I woke up with a fear this morning / But I can taste you on the tip of my tongue.” This song might best encapsulate the emotional circus of the record, with Ora singing, “I don’t wanna hear sad songs…  Don’t wanna sing mad songs anymore… Only wanna sing your song.” The album proceeds accordingly, with a series of love songs.

Ora seems to have a knack for stringing her choruses with memorably saccharine zingers. For instance, she sings in “Only Want You,” “I don’t want somebody like you / I only want you,” and in “First Time High,” “You hit me like the first time high, my love.” “For You” finds her teaming up with Liam Payne for a duet featured on the “Fifty Shades Freed” soundtrack. Much like the bulk of the soundtracks for the trilogy’s previous installments, this is a big blockbuster sound that doesn’t sound very S&M at all. On the other hand, there are lyrics that tap in, such as “I’m free as a bird when I’m flying in your cage… And I’m bleeding in love when you’re swimming in my veins.” A striking feature of this album is the continuity. In “Summer Love,” for example, Ora alludes to her earlier opening line of “Your Song,” referring to “a taste on my tongue.” Continuing the alacritous infatuation of the last three tracks, Ora appears now worlds away from the earlier songs’ ambivalence, insisting, “Oh, I can’t wait to fall into this web you’ve spun.” The song is a delightfully tacky riot, fitting for its name, with summery, clean guitars, a ridiculous drum and bass loop, and kaleidoscopic “ooh-ooh” vocals.

“Girls,” is an impressively star-studded affair, enlisting Charli XCX, Bebe Rexha, and Cardi B. It’s arguably one of the catchiest, likely due to the presence of Charli XCX, whose signature, exaggeratedly girly pop style is less melismatic, at times almost a new wave foil to Ora’s R&B proclivities. The song is an unabashed celebration of female bisexuality, but has somehow provoked a backlash, due to the line “Red wine, I just wanna kiss girls, girls, girls.” Artist KITTENS complained, “This song is literally about wanting to hehe kiss girls when you’re drinking and smoking weed… It’s harmful when LGBT women are fetishized and no relationships are ever taken seriously,” to which Hayley Kiyoko added, “I don’t need to drink wine to kiss girls; I’ve loved women my entire life.” It’s ironic that these ladies are making such a fuss, when so much of the LGBT movement is based on realizing and accepting that others are different from you. Maybe KITTENS and Kyoto like to kiss girls all the time, but maybe Rita, Rexha and Charli only like to kiss girls when they’re drinking red wine — let them be. The girl power continues on “Keep Talking,” which finds Ora and singer Julia Michaels in an expressive back-and-forth that provides novel variety. The chorus of “Higher-igher-igher-igher” is fitting, as they literally sing higher as they go along. The title refers to a refusal to let others’ criticism get to oneself — an understandable concern, considering  Ora’s traumatic last few years. She and Michaels united in this sentiment comes across as an empowering pronouncement.

By the point of the concluding track, “Hell Of a Life,” Ora seems to have cathartically expelled her demons. The song effectively brings the record to closure, recalling the opening tracks escapism, with Ora singing, “Fuck everything and run, run, run.” This time, however, the running seems born out of glee rather than frustration. Ora sung on “Let You Love Me,” “What’s the matter with me?,” but now she succinctly answers herself, “There’s nothin’ wrong with me.” “Phoenix” is an album that, while born out of frustration, ends up ultimately exuding confidence, both lyrically, and with its consistently bright and beaming sound pallet and snappy songs.   

Phoenix” is available Nov. 23 on Apple Music.