When Lana Del Rey emerged, all lips and hair and iPhone selfies in her video for 2011’s “Video Games,” the Internet didn’t know what to make of her. Combining a ‘60s glam aesthetic with a throwback vocal delivery and hip-hop production, Lana seemed to define the post-MySpace model for viral fame and performative identity: a self-imagined artist who catapulted herself into the conversation with a focused aesthetic and halo of mystery surrounding her story.
As much as she felt like Instagram embodied—all soft filters and curated California ennui—the woman born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant did more than reflect the zeitgeist. Singers from Selena Gomez to Ariana Grande are in debt to the stylization and shadowplay that turned Lana Del Rey into, at one point, the most-streamed woman artist in America.
But when she released her first full-length album, Born to Die, the backlash was breakneck. Pitchfork Media, an early champion, seemingly built her up to tear her down. The sensationally immature (and now-defunct) website, Hipster Runoff, went so far as to rechristen itself THE LANA DEL REPORT. The site’s eccentric purveyor, a mysterious figure known as Carles, descended into existential madness trying divine which elements of Del Rey’s persona were real and which were invented. (Since she had previously recorded as Lizzy Grant, many wondered if everything about her had been a lie, including her strange beauty, which bordered on the unnatural.) In a few short months, Lana went from self-releasing music and racking up video views to signing with Interscope and playing Saturday Night Live—a performance of stoic elegance that was swiftly ripped apart online and mocked the following week in an impersonation by Kristen Wiig.
In hindsight, much of the early hysteria around Lana Del Rey seems to have been an overreaction to a minor mystery. Was her persona self-made or an A&R experiment? Was the concept original or was it pastiche? Or was it even a concept at all? Was the music rock or was it hip-hop? Was she an Internet craze or a legitimate star? The only thing for certain was that there had never been anyone exactly like her. Her persona made us enter an uncanny valley: If all the elements are so familiar, why is Lana still so strange? So the culture responded like seizure queens and the baby went out with the bathwater.
Lana became a pariah. Her label didn’t push her songs onto the radio, and she found herself stalked by TMZ without so much as a hit single. This period and all of its cacophonous ridicule spurned Lana to create what, until this year, has been her masterpiece. Sharply titled Ultraviolence, her 2014 follow-up was a bruised and bracing classic, filled with cinematic arrangements, powerful melodies, and a borderline pornographic exploration of betrayal and rage. Those songs, with names like “Sad Girl,” “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” “Brooklyn Baby,” and “Money Power Glory” seemed to demolish, one by one, each of the critiques leveled at her first record. And though they could have come across as just sarcastic and spiteful—which they rightfully did, at least a little—the songs operated as layered stories with obscure targets and meanings, as if to say, “Maybe I am everything you think of me, or maybe I’m nothing at all.” The album debuted at number one and made critics’ year-end lists, though it failed to break through on a mass market level. Lana was back, but she would no longer play the media’s games or perform on television, costing her some of the spotlight she could have reclaimed.
Instead, with Honeymoon, her 2015 return, Lana seemingly retreated from combat and into herself. The album is sparser than the two that came before. It’s also her most intimate and somnambulant to date. Lana, on the record, operates at her most indifferent: while Born To Die was an aesthetic introduction and Ultraviolence featured fangs born of discontentment, Honeymoon narrated her evasion of the limelight and her desire to watch the world go by. She’s a spectator rather than subject. That much is evidenced by the album’s cover, which features Lana riding a Star Tours shuttle through the Hollywood Hills. The music video for the single “High By The Beach,” one of her best, even shows her shooting down a paparazzi helicopter with a bazooka, in case the message wasn’t clear enough.
Her newest album, Lust For Life, released last Friday, reveals a Lana Del Rey that’s lived through the wringer of public expectation.
It started with “Love”, a clarion single released with a starlit video featuring Lana performing on the surface of the moon. In it, she sings, with a wink and a smile, of untethering herself from past concerns. “You’re part of the past, but now you’re the future/Signals crossing can get confusing,” she says, before dissolving into a warm bath of Beach Boys-inspired “Don’t worry baby”s. In that video, the earth floats in the faraway skyline, sending a new message: Lana’s experiencing a change in perspective.
Lust For Life has quickly been hailed as Lana Del Rey’s most upbeat LP since at least Born To Die, but that doesn’t capture the true spirit of the album. Rather, this is her most assured album, a culmination of everything that came before it and a crystallization of her own legend. Almost everything in this cauldron references either her past discography or the work of her idols, in a way that is almost alchemical. In this brew, Lana Del Rey is as towering as the greats who came before her, and she casts a convincing spell.
The title track brings her longtime counterpart and collaborator The Weeknd into her universe and out of his. A$AP Rocky, who co-starred in her video for “National Anthem,” appears on two songs, and Del Rey has brought back Born To Die producer Emile Haynie to collaborate with her and her longtime producer Rick Nowels, throughout. Songs like “Cherry” and “Summer Bummer,” evoke her earlier productions, with funny spoken lines and flourishes of trap beats. On album closer “Get Free,” the lyrics are a direct reference to Born To Die’s Paradise Edition single “Ride.” Compositionally, the callbacks to her past songs are everywhere, from the strings on “13 Beaches” to the mournful strumming on “When The World Was At War We Kept Dancing.”
Del Rey also pays tribute to longtime heroes, referencing John Lennon, Yoko Ono, and Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” on the Sean Lennon-featuring “Tomorrow Never Came.” She reworks a Patsy Cline chorus on “Cherry.” On “Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems,” Stevie Nicks gives a powerhouse vocal counterpart to Lana’s breathier octaves, (complete with a “lie la lie” refrain that pays homage to Simon and Garfunkle’s “The Boxer”). “Coachella - Woodstock On My Mind” literally calls out a stairway to heaven. I think you get the point. Lana seems to have entered a zone of post-appropriation, a canny callout on the era we currently occupy, where the past is everybody’s property and the future depends on which elements we decide to keep.
But after everything we’ve been through with Lana Del Rey, the most amazing thing about this record is its confidence and sense of self-worth. On the post-breakup confessional “In My Feelings,” reportedly written about a past fling with G-Eazy, Del Rey mourns having hot sex with someone who’s proving to be “another loser.” “Who’s doper than this bitch? Who’s freer than me?” she says. “If you wanna make the switch, be my guest, baby.” It would take a loser, we realize, to disagree with that logic.
Lana touches on political topics more frequently than ever, as do we all in this post-Trump era. But she zeroes in on a statement of intent in the album’s last two tracks, “Change” and “Get Free.” On the former, she plaintively sings an ascending melody over piano: “There’s a change gonna come, I don’t know where or when/But whenever it does, we’ll be here for it.” On the latter, it’s even more direct. An emotional counterpunch to Ultraviolence’s standout “Black Beauty,” Lana comes around to an epiphany: “I wanna move out of the black and into the blue.”
For all the debates—the differences between artifice and authenticity, performance and persona, concept and credibility, newness and nostalgia—those dualities have always been at the core of Lana Del Rey as an artist. They’ve gone beyond simple contradiction and become part of the music’s magnetism and mystique. This record affirms that it’s okay to be complicated, to embrace different realities, and to drift in and out of them whenever we’re ready. In an record industry currently obsessed with “authenticity”—Katy Perry wants you to know that she’s Katherine Hudson, while Lady Gaga playing dive bars as Joanne—Lana’s off-beat relationship with the zeitgeist renders her both completely authentic and completely manufactured, seemingly both at once.
In case you were wondering, she’s been real this whole time.