Pop years are a little like dog years. So fickle and forgetful is the market that an artist can rise to fame, fall from grace and be wiped from the nation’s collective memory over the course of a single year. For Rita Ora, then, to take six of them to produce a follow-up to her 2012 self-titled debut album, while she fought a messy legal battle with her (now former) label Roc Nation, was a risky move.
She’s kept her head well above the parapet in the meantime – there was the supporting role in Fifty Shades of Grey, the judging stints on The X Factor and The Voice, not to mention the eight singles she’s released since 2014 – but every time Ora has started to gear up towards an album, something has come about (usually a lawsuit) to stunt the momentum. Now, Phoenix, which she has grandiosely dubbed her “great rebirth”, is finally out. And given the stuttering, protracted process it’s been through to get here, it’s a surprisingly coherent record.
A handful of the songs have been floating around for a year or so. “Your Song” – a minimalist flirtation between drum pad and vocals that adheres to pop’s current “less is more” ethos – is the oldest single, having first been released last May. “Anywhere”, a hazy EDM banger with several bridges and some surprisingly gritty drops, is from 2017 too – but it’s too good to have been left off.
“Girls”, envisioned as a bisexual anthem but received (arguably unfairly, given that it is her lived experience) as a male gaze-fuelling misstep à la Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl”, is hanging on in there too – despite the flack Ora received when it came out (no pun intended) this summer. “Lonely Together”, meanwhile, is technically an Avicii track, to which Ora contributed vocals last year. She has included it here in tribute to the Swedish producer, who died in April. “We were very good friends and he changed my life,” she told the Evening Standard. “In a way, the album is dedicated to him.”
Between these already established tracks, the newer material slots in well. “Let You Love Me” is frank and affecting in its exploration of emotional barriers – “I wish that I could let you love me/ Say what’s the matter with me?” – but you don’t need to engage in its emotional crisis to appreciate this mid-tempo bop. “New Look” is catchy too, despite a beat that sounds like it’s being played on a radio with intermittent signal.
There are a few low points: “Keep Talking”, even with left-field pop connoisseur Julia Michaels on board, is frustratingly plodding, while “Summer Love” builds threateningly towards a clumsy drop. For the most part, though, Phoenix is worth the wait – whether you were doing so with indifference or bated breath.
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