In the world of pop culture, everyone wants a story to go behind the face.  With a face like Lana Del Rey’s (born Elizabeth Grant) there’s generally going to be a lot of questions along the lines of “who’s that girl?” and “What’s her story?”

For those not familiar with the short story – the kid grew up in upstate NY and was shipped off to boarding school at 15 after getting involved with drugs and alcohol, is a daughter of money, and dropped out of college to pursue a musical career.  Fairly unremarkable and innocent.

Then the girl released a three-track EP under the moniker “Lizzy Grant”,  got a deal with a label called 5 Points Records, and released her debut LP Lana Del Rey A.K.A. Lizzy Grant in 2010 only to, as the folklore develops, “have lawyers swoop in and pull it from shelves three months later and end her deal with 5 Points.”  In the recent Billboard cover story much blogosphere ballyhoo has been made of the “invisible strings” pulled once she signed to Interscope to secure rights to her previously recorded work.

All of this, to me, amounts to a whole lot of “so what?”  So much of pop music revolves more around the simple question “does the listener like the song?”  I didn’t discover Lana until the release of the “Born to Die” video in December.  It lit up my Facebook page like a Christmas tree and, as my friends shared, I took a gander.  What I discovered was indeed a grand video with lavish production.  But I also heard a sound – vocally and rhythmically and connected to a face and gestures that spoke wildly of something different and earned the title “Next Big Thing”. Being caught up in one video begged for me to research and discover the story.  I found the video for “Video Games”, produced by Del Rey on a MacBook, which perfectly captures then-and-now California in my minds’ eye (from my trips out to that bold and visual state).  I read about how “Video Games” blew up on the Billboard charts and asked myself why I’d remained so insular to not have heard of this budding starlet.  I then anxiously awaited the full-length.

“Off to the Races” leads the album off with an intro that sounds as though it were recorded live. Sparse tribal beats give way to a drum machine then strings get layered in – all the while, Del Rey’s lyrics and vocal swagger take center stage as she swoons over a Godfather and his old lady romance.  Living the high (if not dangerous) life – it outlines, in almost Jay-Z like style, the highs of this “one true love,” while simultaneously acknowledging the underlying toxicity of the whole thing.  The track closes on a bed of strings.

As a testament to the tracking of the album, single and title track “Born To Die” opens next, on a completely different set of strings.  Another story of tragic love, but this time, a further examination of Del Rey’s vocals reveals comparisons to everyone from Fiona Apple to Hope Sandoval to Marianne Faithful.  Even without the accompanying video, there is a cinematic quality to the song that owes itself just as much to Kanye West – which makes sense considering I’ve read she’s worked with both a Kanye and a Kid Cudi producer on some of the tracks.

“You’re so punk rock/I grew up on hip-hop/you still fit me like my favorite sweater” – it may not be the most original line in “Blue Jeans”, but it’s more about the way Lana sings it, with such swagger and such confidence.  I think that’s the problem at times right now.  In the studio or in your bedroom, you can sing anything with confidence and sound fantastic doing it.  For people expecting a Britney Spears or Lady Gaga dance routine – it’s not going to happen with this chick.  This is why the SNL performance was panned by a lot of people.  Was it a mistake to put her on that stage so early, before the album dropped?  Maybe.  Did she sound sub-par that night?  Yes.  But the benefit of time and hindsight will prove a lot of people wrong on this one.

“Video Games” is completely whimsical in its feel and a welcome change of pace from the complete drama of the first quarter of the album.  “I heard that you like the bad girls/honey, is that true?/it’s better than I even knew.” With lines like those and looks that kill, she’s gonna win over more than a few male votes.

“Diet Mtn Dew” is one of the loosest tracks on the album and has a definite groove to it.  “Let’s take Jesus off the dashboard/got enough on his mind.” Perhaps her song about a play-toy lover: “you’re no good for me… do you think we’ll be in love forever?”  Not even she believes it, but she coyly plays with the lines over piano keys and a hip-hop beat. “National Anthem”, which opens to the sound of fireworks before giving away to more beats and synths, is probably one of the more polarizing tracks on the album. “Money is the reason we exist/everybody knows it/kiss, kiss.” While Del Rey overstates the obvious, I think it’s human nature for us to feel differently.  We want to believe that money doesn’t equal success, though subconsciously we all admit it certainly helps.  The Snookies of this world would be looking for a fist-pumping Pauly D remix of this one.

I wonder if it’s a rite of passage for every female pop singer to pay homage to Madge.  I definitely hear strains of Madonna’s “Frozen” in “Dark Paradise”, specifically toward the chorus.  Other than that brief nod, the track is simplistic but completely in line with the vibe of heartbreak that pervades most of this debut.

One of my favorite tracks is probably one of the most rudimentary.  “Radio” sees Del Rey delivering a strong vocal performance throughout the verses before giving way to a sickeningly sweet chorus.  At points, though, she intersperses both singing styles in a way that oddly reminds me of (remember these girls…) Shakespear’s Sister of “Stay” fame.

“Carmen” and “Million Dollar Man” serve as little more than b-sides and definitely decrease tempo and mood on the back end of the disc.  Born to Die closes relatively strongly with “Summertime Sadness”, but interrupts the album’s flow by being a closer after two throwaway tracks.

All in all, for nine out of eleven tracks to really hit the mark and hold solid attention is a great start for any new artist.  It will be interesting to see how 2012 plays out for her on the touring end of the spectrum.  The blogosphere “haterade” that exists out there will become a dull noise, drowned out by the freshness of the face and sound.  Time will tell whether she’s just a flash in the pan or a pop starlet with staying power but thus far, I’m pretty impressed.

Grade: B+

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