Lady Gaga Creates a Cryptic Dancefloor Fantasy World on ‘Chromatica’

Lady Gaga hatched from an egg at the Grammys, rode a horse to the AMAs, shaved and tattooed her head in public, and donned an infamous meat dress. Along the way, the lines blurred between style and substance, prompting a detour from the dancefloor. “Cheek to Cheek,” “Joanne,” and “A Star Is Born” showed new sides of an artist whose versatility seems to have no limits. Having claimed a category all of her own, Gaga now makes a welcome return to dance music with “Chromatica,” named after a location in Gaga’s mind where sounds and colors mix. A concept so lofty calls for an epic release, and Gaga delivers, with an album that celebrates the healing power of music. Teaming up with producer BloodPop and a slew of others, she turns out a set of dancefloor anthems that find her at her quirkiest and catchiest.

A cinematic overture, “Chromatica I,” builds into “Alice,” and the dance party begins. Gaga puts on her power voice, the one she flaunted in “Bad Romance,” and from the onset, we are worlds away from “Joanne.” True to the spirit of meat dresses and cockroach hats, she belts, “I’ll keep looking for Wonderland” over an insistent beat with a demonic, robotic interlude. “Stupid Love,” a classic, chugging, pitch-shifting dance track builds on the momentum. The refrain, “All I ever wanted was love,” echoes the insistent “I want your love” from “Bad Romance,” a sort of recurrent mantra. Lead single “Rain On Me” is a superstar collaboration with Ariana Grande, who sounds a bit underwhelming alongside Gaga’s booming voice. Gaga utters the titular line, spacing words out with so much dramatic affectation that it’s easy to imagine her laughing between takes. Rain functions as an analogue for both tears and the liquor that Gaga has turned to before in songs like “So Happy I Could Die” and “Million Reasons.” Over the course, her attitude evolves from begrudging acceptance to the cheeky provocation of “Won’t you rain on me?” 

The bangers keep coming with “Free Woman,” a song about unburdening oneself of past trauma. Gaga sings the chorus like she means it, celebrating the dancefloor as a scene of liberation. In a sense, songs like these are throwaways with predictable formats and generic, motivational lyrics, but Gaga sings them with such verve and bombast that it’s hardly an issue. She continues to battle her demons on “Fun Tonight,” which plays like a negative of “Free Woman” — the beat goes on, and Gaga continues to belt away, but this time, about ending the night rather than embracing it, ironically delivering the climactic line of “I’m not having fun tonight.” A second, darker orchestral interlude provides just enough pause between high octane numbers, and erupts into the colorful “911,” which continues the neuroses-fueled revelry of “Fun Tonight,” with Gaga singing, “My biggest enemy is me, pop a 911” over bubblegum electro stylings, with theatrical crescendos and cartoonish contortions, presenting her drama in an almost farcical manner.

“Plastic Doll” follows naturally, with Gaga simultaneously indulging and parodying objectification with a futuristic twist, singing “I’ve got blonde hair and cherry lips / I’m state of art, I’m microchipped” over a rubbery groove. In the chorus, she goes all out in one of her most commanding performances yet. There’s a geek chic thread that reaches an apex here with Gaga affecting a sort of nerd voice. “Sour Candy” funnels the busy beatwork into a sleek, minimal groove and continues the teasing lyrics. Korean girl group Blackpink sing an infectious melody, shuttling between English and Korean with such a finesse that it’s hardly detectable. In a way, Gaga’s penchant for the outlandish anticipated the K-pop craze that has swept the nation, so this comes across like a natural pairing. 

By the point of “Enigma,” one realizes “Alice” was just a tease. The track sequencing effectively moderates energy levels like a seasoned DJ. At this stage, Gaga is beyond warmed up, and she delivers the most anthemic dance number yet, a disco-informed romp, replete with hand drums and brass. She beams, “We could be lovers, even just tonight,” continuing in the vein of “Stupid Love,” building to the eponymous anthemic ring. “Replay” is another instant classic, a swirling, frenetic stomp with luscious, string-laden sections. A thrilling discordance echoes a tension in the lyrics, about how suffering is a sign of one’s humanity, while the beat hammers on insistently, and Gaga dances her way through it all, sounding like some Halloween, vaudeville dancefloor diva. 

A third instrumental installment builds to the definite climax of the album, the epic, Elton John-featuring “Sine From Above.” The spelling of “sine” alludes to the sine wave, making a statement about finding meaning through music. With the traumatic underpinnings of songs like “Rain On Me” and “911” always finding release in the liberating pulse of the dancefloor, this is very much the theme of the album. Gaga belts away over a kickdrum pulse that escalates into raging EDM cliche. Elton John is at his most flamboyant, and hearing him over such a blatantly dancey backdrop is like something out of an alternate universe. He sounds like he’s trying to match Lady Gaga, singing out of his chest in a formidable low register, and ostensibly trying to shatter objects with his sheer vocal force. It’s the most whimsical and extravagant track yet.

On “1000 Doves,” Gaga declares, “Set me free,” and soars like the eponymous birds in an epic chorus, displaying a decadence left over from the previous song. She saves the most camp song of the whole set, however, for the end with “Babylon,” a track sure to appeal to the fervent gay fanbase that return regularly to “Born This Way.” Gaga puts on her gawky voice and quirky, spoken shtick over a disco beat with an ‘80s sax solo, and backup solo singers hollering and chanting.  Priceless instructions like “Strut it out, walk a mile” build up to the eponymous pun of “Babble on,” which alone could make a song.  

“Chromatica” is Lady Gaga’s triumphant return to dance music. Long term fans will welcome the return to form, as the new songs offer all the celebratory zeal of her early hits, now bigger and bolder. At moments, it’s unclear what exactly Gaga is going for, and she appears to have gone a bit mad, but then, these are the bits that make a project with such elaborate conceit work. Whether the music fully lives up to its presentation is a matter of debate that has long plagued Lady Gaga. A concept as elusive and abstract as “Chromatica” suggests music more profound and complex than the straightforward content of the album. If Gaga had worked more with outre producers like Sophie, whose contributions didn’t make the final cut, the project could have taken on an edgier dimension. At any rate, Gaga surely has the singing and songwriting chops to make it work, and she overplays her idiosyncrasies more than ever, exuding personality. The designed silliness of the musical stylings channel trauma and neurosis into dancefloor abandon. Gaga plunges into the fantastical realm and comes out beaming.

Chromatica” is available May 29 on Apple Music.