Before it was released, British pop singer Lily Allen’s first album in five years, “Sheezus,” had been the subject of several controversies.
One involved the song “Insincerely Yours,” which lobbed insults at harmless British models Cara Delevingne and Jourdan Dunn, and singer Rita Ora.
“I don’t give a f–- about Delevingne / Or that Rita girl / About Jourdan Dunn,” Allen trilled pleasantly. “I don’t give a f–- about your Instagram / About your lovely house or your ugly kids.”
Dunn took exception and engaged Allen in the sort of pre-release-day Twitter spat marketing departments dream of. “Insincerely Yours” is a low point on “Sheezus,” which is otherwise a tar pit of thinly veiled insults, songs that evoke Vampire Weekend and the kind of pointed pop-cultural criticism that has long been Allen’s stock in trade.
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Allen got famous during – and thanks to – the brief reign of MySpace at the end of the last decade, releasing two guillotine-sharp pop albums before retreating to marry and have children. “Sheezus” plunders just about every sound that was popular when she departed, including “Paper Planes”-era M.I.A., moombahton and dubstep.
Allen is a modestly regarded musician and a world-class observer of modern culture and its discontents. She was one of a handful of artists making pop music about pop music. She has re-emerged into a world where such self-examination is commonplace, characterized by Lady Gaga’s musings on the nature of stardom, Kreayshawn and Jessie J’s skewering of conspicuous consumption and Ke$ha’s winking party rap.
Hip-hop has always been about hip-hop – its beefs, its lifestyle, its shifting hierarchies. Country music is partially lodged in the swamps of bro-country, in which every hit song about barefoot girls and guys in pickup trucks recalls every other hit song about the same thing.
Pop’s meta moment may have peaked with the ascent of Lorde, whose breakout hit, “Royals,” took aim at some of Allen’s favorite targets – the excesses of hip-hop, the disconnect between real life and the fantasy of pop songs – but Lorde used a scalpel, and Allen uses an ax.
Allen name checks Lorde on her album’s sing-song title track. Rihanna, Katy Perry and Beyoncé also are mentioned, all rivals whom she must vanquish.
“Sheezus” works best when it’s personal, when it plumbs the conflict between work and family, between the tug of motherhood and the pull of fame. A sometimes uneasy ode to domesticity (“Staying home with you is better than sticking things up my nose,” Allen tells her husband), it’s also the most affecting pop album about marriage and new parenthood since Liz Phair’s long-ago “Whitechocolatespaceegg.”
The idea that Allen makes a better domestic goddess than a cultural observer was previously unthinkable. It could be the once-deft satirist now content to bludgeon has lost her way, or it could be that pop music in the late spring of 2014 is already eating itself.