Kesha still has rainbow streaks in her blond hair. She still sprinkles “motherfucker” in her songs like salt. On her new album, Rainbow, out August 11, Kesha returns from a fraught five-year hiatus with a collection that drips sincerity, pain, and, still — on occasion — joy. It shouldn’t have taken her sobbing in a courtroom for us to pay attention.
In 2010, Kesha blasted onto the pop music scene like the clouds of glitter she shot from cannons on her tours. Her brand, overt. Her prerogative, to party. Her toothpaste, a bottle of Jack. Kesha — or, rather, Ke$ha — was billed as no more than a good-time gal: a crude, crass, cheesy star for the masses. With her nasal voice and ludicrous lyrics (see: “Some people they look sexy/Pop and fizzle like a Pepsi”), Kesha wasn’t disdained so much as dismissed. She wasn’t an artist listeners were supposed to sip and savor and discuss. Lick the salt off your hand; tilt your head back; shoot it down. It doesn’t matter if it’s cheap, as long as it works. Two number one hits in two years made her a star (2009’s “Tik Tok,” from Animal, and 2010’s “We R Who We R,” from the EP Cannibal), but even in an age of poptimism, no one was ready to take Kesha seriously. Until, of course, we had to.
Two years after 2012’s Warrior came the lawsuit. In it she claimed that her producer Dr. Luke (né Lukasz Gottwald) had for years “sexually, physically, verbally, and emotionally abused her.” He countersued for defamation. A campaign to #FreeKesha from the binds of her recording contract went viral — at its height Taylor Swift donated a quarter of a million dollars. But Kesha lost anyway. The spell broke, and instead of a party girl standing in front of us, we saw an artist desperate, trapped, begging to break free. Throughout the ordeal, Kesha begged to make music. “Dr. Luke promised me he would stall my career if I ever stood up for myself for any reason,” she wrote in a 2015 affidavit. “He is doing just that.” Kesha still isn’t free — this album, though not directly produced by Dr. Luke, will most likely make him money, and she is still contracted to make two more albums for him barring some kind of buyout — but for the first time in five years, her music is out in the world.
Through some combination of external pressure, good behavior, and fan demand, Kesha returns to pop music with an album that’s authentic to both the girl who wanted to stay till the lights in the club came on and the artist who begged for release. Rainbow is an album steeped in trauma that somehow remains hopeful. But what makes Rainbow such a spectacular return is how well it fits in with the rest of Kesha’s work: It’s a step up, but not a step out.
Because all of Kesha’s big hits have been straight club bangers, it’s easy to forget that, before Rainbow, and before the trial, Kesha was already experimenting with songs that leaned toward introspection. On Warrior, three of the album’s most interesting tracks (“Warrior,” “Dirty Love,” and “Wonderland”) were co-written by Kesha’s mother, Pebe Sebert, a Nashville songwriter who worked with Dolly Parton.
Not everyone bought the move. As Rob Sheffield wrote for Rolling Stone in his 2012 review of Warrior: “The one way Ke$ha could fail to rock is to get sensitive, turn spiritual and start doing acoustic ballads about past lives.” As it happens, on Rainbow Kesha manages to rock despite getting sensitive and spiritual. In 2012, what would we have done with the single “Praying,” a song so careful in its employment of rage and catharsis that it has left me, on more than one occasion, with tears streaming down my cheeks? “I dragged myself out of bed and took my emotions to the studio and made art out of them,” Kesha wrote in Lenny Letter. “I hope this song reaches people who are in the midst of struggles, to let them know that no matter how bad it seems now, you can get through it.”
In many ways, Rainbow gains its power from the supertext of Kesha’s now-public history. We know when she sings “been a prisoner” on “Learn to Let Go,” it isn’t exactly a metaphor. And while there’s not any explicit description of her personal experience on this album — maybe as an artistic choice or perhaps because of legal restrictions — the listener knows that history, which makes it easier for her to take the risks she gestured toward on Warrior. This time, they work.
Now, if Kesha wants to go glam-punk on “Let ’Em Talk” (featuring Eagles of Death Metal) or soul-inspired on “Women”( featuring the Dap-Kings) or gospel on “Hymn,” there is room for it. She no longer needs to lean so hard on the things that made her famous — the club beat; the middle-fingers-up, tongue-out aesthetic — to be seen as a bankable artist, and her fans might even take her more seriously. That’s a good thing, because some of the songs on this album are remarkable. “Hunt You Down” is a June Carter-style country pledge to any man who loves her that “if you fuck around/Boy, I’ll hunt you down.” It’s ridiculous and fun, and a nice mash-up between Kesha’s honky-tonk roots and her dance club hits. Another country-tinged triumph is the Dolly Parton cover “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” originally written by Kesha’s mother. Here is an honesty, a genuine passion, that never would have been recognized in her earlier work, and that truly shines here. That Dolly herself joins Kesha on the track only ups the ante.
Kesha has always had primary writing credit on her albums and a branding that couldn’t be stronger. What makes Rainbow such a standout album is its feeling of freedom, its willingness to break out from the bounds of party rock and plumb emotional depths. This is still an album with rock influences and dance beats and lyrics so outrageous it’s incredible they work. In 2017, it’s no longer possible to write off Kesha as an artist, but maybe we never should have in the first place.