Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta put a lot of time and effort into creating the Lady Gaga persona launched in tandem with her 2008 debut, The Fame—and she’s spent the past 12 years reinventing it over and over. Like an adolescent experimenting, Gaga started with the meat dresses and giant bow wigs before swinging to the other extreme and embracing American standards with Tony Bennett. Eventually she landed in the singer-songwriter zone with 2016’s Joanne and her contributions to 2018’s A Star Is Born. But who is the real Lady Gaga? She seems to ask herself that question on new album Chromatica, though she doesn’t appear to have the answer just yet.
Self-doubt and self-sabotage are recurring themes in the lyrics of Gaga’s sixth studio album, which itself suffers from an identity crisis. Unabashedly a dance record, Chromatica plays much like the Las Vegas residency show Gaga has been performing since December 2018. In fact, one Chromatica track shares its name with that show, Enigma. There are even costume-change breaks: It begins with an orchestral prelude, includes a short instrumental halfway through, and concludes with one more musical break (“Chromatica III,” an unexpected highlight reminiscent of a Hans Zimmer score) before a finale comprised of three of the most noteworthy tracks. The result is at times frenetic and disjointed, though it’s a fair guess that Chromatica was intended to be played from beginning to end as the soundtrack to pre-parties for 2020 Pride celebrations that sadly will never be.
That’s not to say Chromatica is unsuccessful. Borrowing a lot from the pop of the ’80s and early ’90s, much of the album is electro dance-funk at its finest. The irresistibly catchy “Plastic Doll” and lead single “Stupid Love” fuse the best of Gaga’s past iterations into feel-good disco tracks with just the right amount of pain and weight to them. (It makes sense that the latter was Gaga’s first top-ten debut since 2013's “Dope”.)
Chromatica makes strong use of acclaimed house and electronic producers like Axwell, Madeon, BloodPop, and Skrillex, but the production sometimes gets in the way of Gaga’s songwriting. Happily, the lyrics take center stage on “Fun Tonight” and penultimate track “1000 Doves,” which are the closest Chromatica comes to having ballads on par with fan-favorite deep cut “Gypsy” (produced by Madeon) from 2013's Artpop.
But Gaga gets lost in the production on tracks like the album opener, “Alice,” which becomes sleepy as it relies on a generic ’90s dance-floor beat throughout. This happens again to a lesser degree on “Free Woman,” an ethereal empowerment tune that re-energizes at the bridge. There’s also the odd inclusion of a duet with Elton John, “Sine From Above”; the pair’s collaboration is no surprise, having performed together multiple times (and both are icons in the gay community), but the Brit’s vocals are unfortunately jarring when he comes in on the second verse, and there’s something unharmonious about how their voices come together here. It’s functionally the opposite of “Rain On Me,” the recently released single that improves when Ariana Grande joins in. And there’s a third collaboration—promotional single “Sour Candy”—that almost relegates Gaga to a supporting role, with South Korean girl group BLACKPINK taking lead on the throwback Euro-pop verse before Gaga returns us to 2020 in the chorus. The album ends with a smile thanks to the RuPaul’s Drag Race-worthy “Babylon,” though the track will only further enrage militant Madonna fans who accuse Gaga of being reductive, as it channels “Vogue” even more than “Born This Way” echoed “Express Yourself.” It’s a strong finale number, but the aforementioned “Enigma” is Chromatica’s most anthemic offering.
And “enigma” really is a fitting word for Gaga. Her choices can be puzzling, and not every song is a success, but that unpredictability is what makes her exciting and leaves us coming back for more. So maybe Gaga doesn’t know who she truly is yet. It’s still enjoyable to watch her figure it out.