Hardly born with the gift of a golden voice, Rita Ora will have to come up with inventive ways to sound appealing in the cutthroat business of pop music. On the opening cut here she finds one such way: the exciting chorus of “Anywhere” autotunes her vocals out of all recognition, creating a credible hook out of its stuttering, robotic, chopped-up loops. Whether this effect was Ora’s idea or one of her many writer’s or producer’s doesn’t really matter – it’s enticing, and it shows a way around her lack of vocal chops: trick it up some.
The rest of the album doesn’t trick it up enough. It’s harmless lyrics about love and personal growth or rebirth (hence the album’s title) set to harmless electropop. It can burble along quite pleasantly in the background if you let it. But sitting down and giving it a close listen can only lead to disappointment. Listening to much of Phoenix makes you feel like a chess pro playing against an amateur: you can easily sense the next 5 moves it’s going to make. The next chord change, the next vocal mannerism, the next beat can be quickly guessed before it happens. I guess the word to describe the album, and I usually hate the use of this hipsterish term when describing pop music, is: predictable.
The grim predictability even managed to extend to the marketing; in the album’s promotion Rita Ora described the thing as, gosh, a “rollercoaster of emotions“. What she means by that is there’s some uptempo cuts, some midtempo cuts, and some ballads. Like just about every pop album ever.
It’s easy to be cynical, but Rita Ora really did go through some drama before releasing Phoenix. Embroiled in lawsuits and counter-lawsuits against Roc Nation (a contract dispute that was settled in 2016), before moving to Atlantic Records, she is certainly trying to be reborn in a commercial sense. Plus there was relationship woes that you may or may not be interested in, and I won’t go into here. Really, a good pop album should stand apart from the ashes of the autobiographical details out of which it emerges. It should create its own world, be a phoenix that stands on its own two feet, rather than rolling about in the ashes.
The hodgepodge of Phoenix doesn’t create an interesting enough world to lose yourself in. Ora references pop classics such as Elton John’s “Your Song”, but her unrelated song of the same name doesn’t stick in your head or drum up a well of emotions like that earlier classic. “Summer Love” takes a favourite pop theme and with its dull melody and tediously unimaginative programmed beats does nothing with it. Her Fifty Shades Freed track is as dreary as that series of films, and has as little to say about sex and love.
Still, there’s at least one surprise, and it’s a moment of near subversion. “Girls” is a sequel of sorts to “I Kissed a Girl”, about how being at a party and drinking enough wine might bring out the lesbian in just about anyone. It’s no queer classic, and like that earlier Katy Perry track, you do worry if it’s all actually just an exhibitionist ploy to attract and turn on male listeners, by appealing to their fantasies. But then along comes the great Cardi B to add spice and fire to the song: her cadences and swagger instantly emanate a genuine sexuality that Ora just can’t muster on her own. And the words sizzle too: “Say my name, say my name, say my name/It tastes good just rollin’ off your tongue, right?” What a tease. More importantly, she challenges the idea of it all being a male lesbian fantasy by making it totally clear that she’s not getting with girls for their amusement: “I steal your bitch, have her down with the scissor”. That’s a threat. She sounds like she’s genuinely challenging the heteronormative order. And she makes being bi-curious sound like a whole lot of womanly, independent fun.
It’s a “Hell of a Life”, as the last track of Phoenix tells us. I just wish that Ora was as successful at proving it in 40 minutes as Cardi B managed in 40 seconds.