When Olivia Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License” was released in January, it instantly became a massive hit. Rodrigo was the first non-American Idol female artist to have her initial single debut atop the Billboard charts since Lauryn Hill, over 20 years ago. Many who latched on to the track didn’t know they were listening to a TV actor who’d been steadily working for the better part of a decade, much less that she was the star of Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series. The song’s immense success signaled that, in this new era, Disney artists don’t need to follow the same formula as the Radio Disney superstars who broke through a decade ago. Rodrigo is foregoing the cheesy singles and music videos; she even says “fucking.”
Following Disney’s failure to turn some of its best singers, like Bridgit Mendler and Sabrina Carpenter—the rumored “blonde girl” Rodrigo sings about in “Driver’s License”—into major pop stars, Rodrigo has become the first current Disney multi-hyphenate to be a pop singer first, TV actor second. Instead of signing to the Disney-owned Hollywood Records, for example, she’s part of Interscope’s roster, in the company of current popular music giants like Billie Eilish, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Lana Del Rey. Having full creative control has clearly worked in Rodrigo’s favor: Her debut record, SOUR, will be a contender for best pop album of the year. There are no filler tracks on SOUR. Each song represents a different side to Rodrigo’s artistry, embracing every influence that’s shaped her music, while still creating something fresh.
SOUR opens with “Brutal,” a track reminiscent of Exile In Guyville-era Liz Phair. The song is not what one might expect from the most talked-about new pop star of the moment, and that’s exactly what makes it so exciting. Exile is one of the most iconic breakup albums of all time, and here Rodrigo captures a similar sardonic wit when she sings, “And lately I’m a nervous wreck / ’Cause I love people I don’t like / And I hate every song I write /And I’m not cool, and I’m not smart /And I can’t even parallel park.”
Rodrigo is far from devoid of adolescent woes—specifically, the anguish of someone who’s just experienced her first real heartbreak. She knows all too well the pain of feeling like you’re not good enough after someone you loved dives into a new relationship immediately after breaking things off, even if she hasn’t yet discovered just how far into adulthood it can still sting. The singer has said she doesn’t want to be known solely as someone who writes about heartache. And while one can see hints of mentor Taylor Swift’s impact on her songwriting (especially on the Swift-sampling “1 Step Forward, 3 Steps Back”), Rodrigo makes sure we know this is not really an album about her ex, HSM:TM:TS co-star Joshua Bassett. It’s about Rodrigo coming of age and learning to heal after her first major breakup, while trying to find herself in the midst of it all.
One of the most enjoyable things about SOUR is how Rodrigo combines all her influences into a cohesive whole. “1 Step Forward…” marries Swift’s influence on her work with that of Regina Spektor—inviting listeners who may have mourned failed romances while listening to Begin To Hope to feel nostalgic, while also allowing a new generation of teenagers to recognize themselves. The track seamlessly transitions into Rodrigo’s second single, “Deja Vu,” a twinkly Radiohead-inspired breakup song with sly references to Glee and Billy Joel.
One of the album’s other biggest surprises comes with “Enough For You,” a brutally honest track about Rodrigo not feeling like she was enough for her past love. It’s stripped down, letting Rodrigo’s voice shine with nothing but acoustic guitar as accompaniment. It doesn’t need the theatrics of her singles to stand out, proving she’s as adept at bare intimacy as huge spectacle. Rodrigo shines brightest when she’s lyrically raw—which happens throughout practically all of SOUR. “Traitor” is her most vulnerable song yet, pinpointing exactly what hurts so much about her relationship ending. It’s a gentle ballad, sweet in its contrast with the subject matter, where Rodrigo delves into the pain of knowing that her former partner was already falling for someone else while she was still with him.
“Jealousy, Jealousy” is the most in line with the current generation of pop stars, taking influence from both Del Rey and Eilish. But even while her musical references are familiar, Rodrigo’s individuality is still recognizable. She has a distinct lyrical style that’s both self-deprecating and charming. In “Jealousy, Jealousy,” Rodrigo says that just because she’s famous, that doesn’t mean she can’t feel as insecure as any other teenager. The self-awareness, paired with the struggle that every teenage girl goes through, is refreshing. At a time when artists like Demi Lovato, Swift, and Eilish have spoken about their body image issues, it’s poignant to address it head-on in the music itself.
Album closer “Hope Ur OK” takes Rodrigo away from her heartbreak narrative. In it, she instead tells the story of people who are no longer in her life who she nonetheless still thinks about. It’s not the strongest track on the album, but it’s still fairly stunning, with dreamy synths and a twinkling piano outro. The beauty of SOUR is that Rodrigo isn’t trying too hard to convince young listeners she understands them; she achieves this naturally, because in all the ways that matter, she is still one of them. She’s a master storyteller, with delightfully petty “spicy Pisces” lyrics that keep her sympathetic as she attempts to accept her worth. Disney must be thrilled: Even those who’ve aged out of a High School Musical-themed TV show might tune in to get a look at the boy who has somehow become the focus of one of the year’s biggest records. But the greatest win doesn’t come for Disney; it’s for Rodrigo. SOUR proves that, regardless of her current fame as a TV star, Rodrigo’s future lies within the new generation of pop icons.