best of 2017: kesha "rainbow"



In 2005, at the age of 18, Kesha Rose Sebert signed a recording contract with the producer Dr. Luke. Recording contracts for new artists are often tricky things. They can promise very little while expecting quite a lot. There are no guarantees of success, and if success does come, it can come at a high price. Music, like all creative industries, is a twisted business. In the middle of that twistedness is where Kesha found herself in 2014, forced to file a civil lawsuit to break from this contract with Dr. Luke and his label, Kemosabe Records. She alleged sexual, physical, and emotional abuse against the producer, a man who seems to have brushed his hands against the careers of everyone in the business, from Kelly Clarkson to Britney Spears. The court denied her request and Luke filed a countersuit for defamation, rendering Kesha unable to release music through his or any other label. The artist known for catharsis-inducing party hits was trapped not only by her abuser, but by the justice system. Eventually, and after industry outcry by supporters like Lady Gaga and Lorde, Sony Music (the financier of Kemosabe Records) agreed to allow Kesha to release new music, though it would remain under the label carrying her abuser’s name. Kesha conceded, and began work on the release of her first album since 2012. Rainbow is the result.

Soulful, sincere, and cleansing – Rainbow is Kesha’s reaction to this tumultuous time. It is not a celebration of unfettered freedom. On the contrary, it meditates on what it means to live within the cell of your torments, buried, and how to dig your way to the surface again.

It’s hard not to imagine that the music of Rainbow may be the music Kesha was always meant to make. These 14 tracks – marked by their country, rock, and blues influences – are the best of her career. It recalls that proverb of art created in darkness, but also begs the question of what may have been created in light. Throughout the first half of the album, a weight hangs above the air in Kesha’s voice. It’s that of her never-ending battle to survive a world that would rather see her stifled. And she’s exhausted by it. In “Bastards,” she confesses “I could fight forever/but life’s too short.” An acoustic guitar echoes the melody and she answers it, exhaling, determined: “I’ll just keep living/the way I want to live.”

Kesha isn’t unaware of her position. She knows her oppressor, as well as his uninvited presence in her art. But instead of ignoring this injustice, she addresses it. She marks it and shoots it down with her trademark joy for life. She emerges a changed artist. Not so far from Warrior or Animal that she’s unrecognizable, but changed still. Grown. Weary of a world that’s both shaped and betrayed her.

It’s no mistake that “Praying” is Rainbow’s lead single. In it, Kesha opens the full range of her voice to tell a story that’s been smeared across courtrooms and tabloids. She enters, remembering: “You almost had me fooled/told me I was nothing without you,” but twists us past bitterness. She unleashes, teeth barred in the direction of her abuser, victory on her lips: “I hope you find your peace/falling on your knees/praying.” An obliteration.

Kesha comes out on the other side of “Praying” in celebration. She releases her resentment and allows herself some time to feel redemption, to get back to her old self, and to dance. “Boogie Feet” and “Boots” are invitations to this party and remind us her roots are in country, not bathroom floor rap.

The party continues. “Hunt You Down” acknowledges, cheekily, that new lovers stand warned as Kesha stands educated (Baby, I love you so much/don’t make me kill you). “Godzilla” documents falling for a monster over food court fries (we’ve all been there). But my favorite of these tracks stands above the rest, if only for the well-placed nostalgia (a phrase I do not write lightly!!). “Old Flames (Can’t Hold A Candle To You)” is a collaboration with Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, who co-wrote the song, and Dolly Parton, who made it famous on her album Dolly, Dolly, Dolly. The rendition is considerate and heartache-curing. A spoonful of sugar on an album that is so triumphantly bittersweet.

But it remains that this album, though lit by its fight against oppression, still bears the scars of a system determined to silence the voices of women. The fact that it took a courtroom, PR entanglements, and permission for Kesha to begin to tell her story can feel discouraging. Kesha knows this, and she’s decided to move beyond it the best she can. She’s been given no other choice.

On “Spaceship,” the album’s last track, our embattled warrior returns to campfire-tuned acoustics and declares her transcendence from all this mess: “I am nothing more than recycled stardust and borrowed energy...I am nothing.” And it doesn’t play as heartbreaking. It’s the freedom she’s been denied. The legal decision she was robbed of, the years of abuse, it doesn’t cure any of that. But the nothing of it all - that this is all time borrowed - this realization is her salvation. It’s her freedom.

Earth may have broken her heart, and she may decide to leave us one day for the sweeter waters of outer-space. But before that, Kesha will continue her fight to improve our broken world. She’ll share her joy, her dance, her spirit. She’ll cast her rainbow, and we’ll hold on tight.

Rainbow, Kesha’s first album since 2012, is now Grammy-nominated.

Illustration by Sarah Crawford. Based on Kesha's Rainbow album art by Robert Beatty.