Chromatica review: a return to form for Lady Gaga

By Imogen Fahey

Lady Gaga’s last pop project was 2013’s ARTPOP, an EDM record about pop culture that received mixed reviews from critics and fans alike. Gaga herself said that the album shows “a tremendous lack of maturity”, and its brash and unpolished sound was divisive and alienated listeners coming from her chart-topping album Born This Way.

Her vision with ARTPOP was to create music that audiences can dance to, mirroring “a night at the club” while still being intimate and personal. Seven years on, Gaga has achieved this with the arrival of Chromatica.

With production help from dance-pop experts such as Axwell, BloodPop and Burns, Chromatica is 43 minutes of pure pop joy that begs to be played in nightclubs across the globe. Whereas recent releases from pop artists Dua Lipa and Carly Rae Jepsen have focused on disco and funk elements of retro pop, Gaga’s Chromatica invites the listener on a journey back to the 1990s; where Eurodance and house ruled the club scene.

“Strut it out, walk a mile / Serve it, ancient city style” – Lady Gaga, ‘Babylon’

It is no surprise that Gaga has an interest in reviving the ‘90s dance sound, considering its origins in the black American ball culture and LGBT communities whose contributions to music and fashion have had a significant influence on her career. In 1990, Madonna, whom many consider to be Gaga’s predecessor, ushered house music into the mainstream. The final song on Chromatica is ‘Babylon’, whose piano-driven pulsating beat almost seems to be an ode to ‘Vogue’.

‘Alice’ is another album highlight. The pounding ‘four on the floor’ beat and driving synths make for pop perfection with a house flavour. But the album is not entirely made up of danceable bops. It features three orchestral interludes (‘Chromatica’ I, II, and III) composed by Gaga and musician Morgan Kibby.

Such interludes can be out of place and disorienting on pop records; however, on Chromatica, they are used to great effect. In the age of streaming, album tracks are becoming shorter and shorter to maximise revenues. The orchestral build-ups to ‘Alice’, ‘911’ and ‘Sine from Above’ extend the songs’ length, whilst also creating a lush, radiant atmosphere to lead into the bouncing pop beats.

The transition between ‘Chromatica II’ and ‘911’, for example, is seamless and adds a sense of grandeur to an already incredibly dark pop song. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Gaga said that the track is a reference to her antipsychotic medication which helps control her fluctuating moods. It is one of her most lyrically open and honest pieces yet; we hear her cold, robotic voice chanting, “my biggest enemy is me ever since day one / pop a 911, then pop another one”, against a moody, industrial dance beat.

Chromatica draws on a variety of musical influences

The album boasts features from pop stars both established and emerging. Fans expected the collaboration with Elton John, ‘Sine from Above’, to be a slow piano ballad; instead, it is more of a dancefloor ballad, whose last thirty seconds explodes into a crashing drum and bass rhythm. The second single, ‘Rain on Me’, is a gloriously optimistic dance track featuring vocals from Ariana Grande. The third single, ‘Sour Candy’, was a surprise release, out only a day before the album. It is speculated that fans of the K-pop group, BLACKPINK, who feature on the track, were preparing to leak it. 

Chromatica has been plagued with leaks since its inception. Lead single, ‘Stupid Love’, an electropop track with a chugging chorus, was leaked in full on Twitter towards the end of January. Snippets of tracks such as ‘Free Woman’ were also floating around on the Internet before the album’s release. Some question whether these leaks were indeed an accident, or rather, a way to drum up interest and publicity. Considering that other equally famous artists such as Beyoncé and Taylor Swift can release and even surprise-drop entire records without a single leak, it certainly is questionable.

Dancing through the pain

Leaks and delays aside, Lady Gaga has achieved what she set out to do seven years ago; produce a fully realised dance-pop record full of innovation, artistry and passion. Chromatica truly marks a triumphant return to form for the singer whose recent catalogue has been composed of heartfelt ballads and lukewarm country-pop. Although Gaga was reluctant to drop the album during quarantine, its release allows us to live vicariously through slamming club tracks about crying on the dancefloor; envisioning a future where DJs at gay clubs across the world will be playing ‘Free Woman’ on repeat.