Lady Gaga’s sixth studio album marks the singer’s highly anticipated return to her dance-pop roots – but after 2016’s Americana-infused Joanne and the blues-rock of A Star is Born, can Gaga reignite the flames that once made her one of pop’s largest titans?
Opening the album with a string arrangement, Chromatica I is the first of three transitions that divide Chromatica into three segments.
As described by Gaga, the prelude marks the first chapter of the pop star’s journey to healing, where the world’s weight amplifies around her as she faces the things she fears the most. The track is highly cinematic through its sonic ability to portray despair and tension, aiding the introspective world building of the fictional universe of Chromatica.
The first classical arrangement transitions into Alice, a track paying homage to ‘00s post-rave and following a ‘90s-esque EDM beat. It is best described as the sonic embodiment of desperation exploding into electronic dance music – a theme Gaga previously touched upon on ARTPOP, her third studio album.
Referencing the 1865 Lewis Caroll novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Gaga compares her situation to that of the fictional children’s tale character, highlighting her state of mind as a dark instrumental track pulsates beneath:
“Could you pull me out of this alive? / Where’s my body? I’m stuck in my mind”
The escape through which Gaga approaches healing is none other than the dance floor:
“Maestro, play me your symphony, I will listen to anything, Take me on a trip, DJ, free my mind”
Alice is a stellar introduction to the record, with its murky, groovy beats, Gaga’s classic syllable-stuttering pop delivery and robotic chanting transforming an otherwise simple, throwback dance production into a dark, hypnotic acid trip that leaves dancefloor maniacs craving more of the track’s rave therapy.
The lead single, Stupid Love, sees Gaga’s return to her most colorfully commercial form. An electro-pop track, it features a running synth and bass line, reminiscent of ‘80s synth-pop inspired New Wave and Outrun.
With the addition of kick drums and a vocal chop sample reminiscent of 2015 tropical house dominating the track, many long-time followers were dumbfounded by Gaga’s sonic decision.
Stupid Love was still relatively uncharted musical territory for Gaga – for besides The Cure, a standoff single released on the first night of her 2017 Coachella set, and Joanne’s John Wayne album cut, few of her major tracks featured a chorus with a vocal chop.
And while releasing a lead single so polarizing was perhaps not the safest move to pull for the pop star’s anticipated dance floor comeback, its placement does make sense in the track’s structure.
Most of the song’s tension is built up in the pre-chorus, Gaga continuously repeating “All I ever wanted was love”, while her background vocals harmonize with the lead. What follows is a roaring declaration of Gaga’s desire to love a certain person.
The dance break that follows these high points is an opportunity for listeners to take a breath, process, and dance along to the explosive track – following it with anything else would have been sonically overwhelming and an error of pacing.
Stupid Love’s strong points are its infectious production and Gaga’s vocal delivery – her head voice register singing on the track’s last pre-chorus helps the track reach maximum euphoria while the synths and echoing drums keep listeners dancing throughout.
Its lyricism, however, is mixed – while the song transmits a simple message, Gaga’s usual artistic presence is missing for the most part, only appearing on the pre-chorus.
It is hard to imagine another pop star singing “Freak out, freak out, freak out, / Look at me” moments before the chorus of a feel-good pop song, though the rest of the song seems like it could be sung by many.
With Rain on Me, the collaboration with Hot 100 juggernaut Ariana Grande, the duo explores the topic of submitting oneself to sadness:
“It’s coming down on me, / Water like misery, / I’m ready, rain on me”
It is a ‘90s-influenced house/dance track, carried by Grande’s soft vocals and Gaga’s self-assured delivery.
Their voices contrast each other, each shining in different areas and contributing to the overall monster tune of the song in different ways.
Grande’s voice offers a cloud of sensitivity to the track, while Gaga gives way to the ultimate confidence and acceptance of experiencing hurt.
Its lyrics are straightforward yet symbolic, Gaga’s persona shining on the bridge before the chorus, using her signature spoken-word delivery. “Rain on me, tsunami” reminds us of the quirky and spontaneous songwriting of early ‘10s Gaga.
The disco-esque guitars, strings, and synth claps explode into a ‘90s house drop for the final chorus, where the superstars sing in unison as a fiery explosion of shared trauma births one of pop music’s greatest dance floor anthems.
While Free Woman’s chill-pop dance production translates much like the soundtrack to a beauty vlogger YouTube channel, it is an enjoyable track that features at times powerful lyricism from Gaga:
“I’m not nothing without a steady hand, / I’m not nothing unless I know I can, / I’m still something if I don’t got a man, / I’m a free woman”
The most praise-worthy moment is the singer belting out “I’m a free woman” while the chorus repeats itself on the outro. Aside from those last few seconds, there is not much else worthy of interest – the vanilla and overly-modern production is overpowered by Gaga’s powerful, musical theatre-like vocal delivery, causing disruption between the two.
And although it is a catchy piece of pop at times, Free Woman’s production and lyrical content are, for the most part, uninspired and overdone. Its presence on the album does not hold strong value, and it could have easily been serviced as a bonus track without the album losing substance.
Following the route of a more contemporary sound, Fun Tonight is a track that incorporates Eurodance production with a string-painted EDM drop to create one of the most vulnerable sonic portraits of Gaga in her discography.
The singer’s melancholic vocal delivery and falsetto deliver some of the most positively effortless and emotionally striking lyricism of the record, a feat tracks Free Woman and Stupid Love often failed to achieve.
“I’m not having fun tonight” is a simple way to address the consuming sadness that affects many from time-to-time, able to connect to everyone that wishes to be able to leave worries behind and enjoy a happy moment. However simple it might seem, it is a complex sentiment – transmitted in little words, successfully.
The aforementioned type of lyricism combined with a contrasting, dance floor-crier type of production makes Fun Tonight not only possible breakup playlist fodder, but an album highlight.
Chromatica II, the second string arrangement composed by Gaga and White Sea singer-songwriter Morgan Kibby, paints gloomy storm clouds over the surface of Chromatica.
In what is possibly one of the most satisfying musical transitions, the interlude’s building tension ferociously explodes into 911, a futuristic, industrial amalgamation of self-hatred and its resulted exhaustion.
“My biggest enemy is me, pop a 911”, Gaga sings robotically over a thick, pulsatingly haunting bass line about the medication that keeps her mental health from spiraling.
The song’s lyricism offers a pictorial outlook on Gaga’s battle with herself, the singer describing her self-destructive process as “biological stasis”, with “paradise is in my hands” referring to the medication that helps keep her mental state in check.
On the track’s outro, Gaga cries out for help, singing “Please patch the line, please patch the line” in a fading tone, expressing her need to be rescued from her own mind.
The song is catchy, hypnotizing, and disturbing – reminiscent of the atmosphere and sound utilized on the goth-pop The Fame Monster, mixed with ARTPOP’s mechanical imagery.
“Am I-E plastic, plastic doll, plastic, technologic?”, Gaga sings on the hook of Plastic Doll, a Eurodance-disco production dealing with the singer’s feeling of being objectified.
And although the barbie archetype has been just about abused to the point of exhaustion in the world of pop music, she manages to insert just enough of her personality into the track to make it unique.
The aforementioned hook features Gaga’s syllable-stuttering vocal delivery reminiscent of Poker Face and Paparazzi, almost as if the track was exported from a flash drive containing The Fame songs left on the cutting board, modernized with the help of a fresh facelift.
Gaga echoes her statements on not wanting to be someone’s plaything with an ethereal-sounding falsetto, almost mimicking the voice of her Malibu bombshell self that she addresses on a bridge of classic, campy Gaga lyricism: “Who’s that girl, Malibu Gaga, / Looks so sad, what is this saga?”
Sour Candy features K-pop supergroup BLACKPINK on a deep house track that follows a bouncy electronic beat.
One of the most instantly captivating tracks on the record, it shines most through Gaga’s stellar vocal delivery as she sings the sugar rush-inducing lyrics.
Entrancing the listener with her lower register, she makes clichéd candy symbolism feel fresh and seductive:
“Close your eyes, don’t peek, / Now I’m undressing, / Unwrap, sour candy”
The track is one of the few examples in pop music where every element functions in total balance with one another. No one part of the song’s recipe is greater than the other; the instrumental is infectious, the verses are captivating, the chorus is satisfyingly explosive – the end product is anything but sour for those who can appreciate campy, sexy fun.
The track Enigma meets all the requirements for a perfect Lady Gaga song – a gigantic chorus, Avant-Garde lyrics, powerful vocals, and a strong production – yet falls flat, for (oddly fitting) enigmatic reasons.
What it does visibly suffer from, however, is something that Gaga has been criticized for on her previous album rollout, specifically with Perfect Illusion – the singing on the chorus is painstakingly loud. As opposed to Perfect Illusion, she’s not addressing a subject that provokes anger, yet she’s belting out “We could be anything you want” like her life depended on it.
The production and lyrical work are admirably ambitious.
Gaga singing captivating imagery such as “Mystery man, woman phantom” and “Dragon’s eyes watch, goddess breathing” over some fantastic horn loops and swirling strings would have made Enigma one of the best tracks on the record, had it not all fallen apart once the song reached its refrain.
On Replay, resurrecting her 2009 monster metaphor, Gaga focuses on the hopelessness she feels as a result of a toxic relationship and PTSD: “The monsters inside you are torturing me, / The scars on my mind are on replay’’.
An interesting detail about the track is that it fades in with elements reminiscent of ‘80s Dream wave and arcade-pop, only to transform into a groovy disco-influenced track that would perfectly fit onto Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia.
Replay is upbeat, energetic, and a track where Gaga’s amplified vocal delivery seems more justified than on the previous. Coupled with the help of dark lyricism and a constrastingly groovy production, it makes for a satisfying album cut.
The record’s last orchestral interlude sees Chromatica III, a Hans Zimmer-esque string arrangement fading into Sine from Above, the electronica collaboration with music industry legend Elton John.
The track presents complex imagery, sine also referencing the trigonometric representation of a sound wave (Sin).
Throughout Chromatica’s album rollout, Gaga talked about gaining inspiration from a supposed theory alluding the universe’s creation to the act of a single sound wave.
On the track, the ethereal power of sound is what ultimately rejuvenates Gaga (“Healed my heart, heard a sine’’) after spending her time wishing for the worst: “When I was young, I prayed for lightning”
The two’s voices resemble a magnificent roar of ethereal titans, Elton John delivering raspy, commanding vocals on the second verse while Gaga lets out frantic battle cries in the background.
When Gaga tones it back on the hook, her soft vocals transform into an alluring siren call, complementing the song’s celestial nature.
It is the grandiose lyricism (“I heard one sine from above, / Then the signal split in two, / The stars created stars like me and you’’) and the genre-bending production (with elements of europop, trance, and an explosive drum n’ bass breakdown) that make Sine perhaps the most ambitious and memorable track on the record.
After the soaring acid house outro of Sine, listeners of Chromatica are grounded once more with 1000 Doves, a piano-driven house track.
On the song, perhaps the closest thing to a ballad on the record, Gaga sings a balletic cry, urging her supporters to lift her spirits so she is able to become the best version of herself.
Unfortunately, her vocals outshine a production which serves just about as much personality as the manufactured Ally Maine, Gaga’s pop star alter ego in 2018’s A Star is Born.
However enjoyable it might be, the track does not contribute to the overall Chromatica experience in the sense that it lacks the ambition the majority of the record represents.
As opposed to Fun Tonight, 1000 Doves is not one of the moments on the album that makes up for the lack of its complexity with effective minimalism – it is a danceable afterthought instead.
The record ends on a remarkably high note – the closing track, Babylon, is a ’90s inspired, Vogue-esque catwalk anthem with a rich production that ranges from groovy disco bass lines to kooky sax and wild loon calls plastered throughout the track.
On it, Gaga dedicates the lyricism to exotic imagery and biblical world building, motivating listeners to babble on (a wordplay on Babylon), while serving “ancient city style’’.
It being Gaga’s last destination in the fantastic world of Chromatica, many interpret the track as the singer’s campy way of declaring acceptance of the gossip and mindless chatter that has been following her throughout her career.
Drawing reference to the Tower of Babel on the second verse, Gaga seemingly wraps up the mythological universe of Chromatica with the aforementioned element, a tower tall enough for Chromatica’s citizens to reach the heavens: “Bodies moving like a sculpture / On the top of Tower of Babel tonight / We are climbing up to Heaven”
With its tongue-in-cheek lyricism, layered production, and playful vocal delivery, the song sees Gaga’s return to her most extravagant form – and makes Babylon one of the most fascinating tracks on the record.
To sum up, Lady Gaga’s sixth LP is not perfect – yet even if some moments of lyrical and sonic indifference take you out of its otherwise ambitious universe, the majority of its melodies make Chromatica one of the singer’s most infectious and thematically adventurous efforts to date.