By Staff Writer Praveen Nair
Taylor Swift has been busy since the release of her widely acclaimed 2014 album 1989. She played the album’s tour to over two million fans, won three Grammys, and never left the public eye even with a three-year break between albums. Swift returns from that hiatus with reputation, a boldly reimagined offering that challenges her public image and marks a distinct stylistic shift from the country and pop of her previous albums.
From the opening seconds of “…Ready for It?,” the album’s first song, it’s evident that this album is … different. Featuring piercing bass and hip-hop beats, Swift’s verses have the cadence of a rap song, marking a jarring shift from 1989, let alone the country music that brought Swift to stardom. But this shift isn’t carried out throughout the entire album, as reputation settles into a traditional sound as it moves towards its ending (this division is accentuated by ellipses in the track listing that possibly signal the tonal shift). In fact, the last song, “New Year’s Day,” features simply Swift over a guitar and piano backing, tying a bow on the diversity of the album with a subdued ending.
Perhaps the most persistent criticism of Swift is that her music focuses heavily on her personal relationships, or that she exacerbates private issues by voicing them to her massive audience. In reputation, Swift addresses but also furthers this accusation. In the first single (and corresponding video) from the album, “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift eagerly plays the villain that she’s often portrayed as, echoing the “snake” motif that’s been directed at her for more than a year and adopting it as a mark of her own. But at the same time, reputation is still unapologetically biographical. The album is littered with references to Swift’s infamous feuds and relationships, ranging from the backhand to the blatant; songs like “Look What You Made Me Do” and “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” include obvious references to Swift’s feud with rapper Kanye West while “Delicate” and “Gorgeous” shout out her boyfriend Joe Alwyn.
As with all her albums, Swift is credited as a writer on every track, an increasingly impressive achievement in a pop music landscape dominated by ghostwriters and large creative teams. Lyrically, reputation is one of Swift’s most cohesive, complete albums; the themes of reputation, revenge, and (of course) love tie the album together well. Of course, that’s not to say that reputation doesn’t have its awkward moments lyrically; the cleverness of Swift’s writing does little to mask her thinly veiled references. When Swift makes evident allusions to West’s tilted stage or to the infamous phone call that rekindled their feud, she substitutes lyrical depth for a game of “guess the target,” and that game is always less complicated than she seems to think. The album’s lyrical choices are also harsher than those in Swift’s previous work. Notably, reputation is the first album on which Swift uses profanity (although its use is subtle), and her use of innuendo is stronger than ever.
reputation is undoubtedly influenced by hip-hop and electronic music, and these contributions help the album rival 1989 in pure earworm potential. Sure, Swift may not match the upbeat pop of “Shake It Off,” but nearly every track of reputation stands out on its own; it’s difficult to point to a weak spot in the album’s formidable listing. Most emblematic of the stylistic change is a feature by Atlanta rapper Future, who seamlessly enhances “End Game” (which also features Ed Sheeran). But while Future’s verse accentuates the track perfectly with a flurry of his signature rhymes, it lasts for a grand total of 23 seconds, and one can’t help but feel as if his potential on the track is wasted by the minimal length of his appearance. Later in the album, Swift’s voice is accentuated by subtle synth effects, and most of the beats are based on an unmistakable electronic signature. If reputation, as Swift’s sixth studio album, signals a new direction for the artist, it’s a welcome one, especially for those who criticized 1989’s flavor as diluted.
With reputation, Taylor Swift has once again changed her sound, taking a darker turn thematically and stylistically. While it has its hiccups, reputation maintains the outstanding lyricism and production quality that rocketed her to fame. If anything, the album cements Swift’s place at the top of popular music.
Photo by store.taylorswift.com