Take everything you know about Miley Cyrus – the VMA twerking incident, the pregnancy rumors, and even her overly drastic blonde haircut – and throw it through a ‘Once Upon A Time’ portal. There’s no magic, no spells, just some possible shapeshifting behind her reinvention, as she admits that her first post-Disney album ‘Bangerz’ would be one of complete freedom. Cyrus, who is most notably known for her five-year stint on the acclaimed ‘Hannah Montana’ series, can’t get past her cookie-cutter days as part of the biggest franchise in the channel’s history. As an extreme disconnect from her teen pop days, Miley decided to give her career a magical makeover while accepting her newfound urban roots. She left Hollywood Records, widely known as ‘Disney’s music label’, and joined RCA fresh off a legal battle that dissolved well-known imprints J, Jive, and Arista. It’s definitely a risk to let an artist control their own destiny – let alone someone that isn’t technically an adult – but it’s a risk that both Miley and RCA were willing to take. The result is an eclectic yet disorganized mix of R&B, country-rap, and random pop sprinkles with one too many features – think Marnie Stonebrook meets Lindsay Lohan. But here, you’re blinded from the twerking, the skimpy outfits, or even the wagging tongue, it’s just her music – a spell that’s just too disjointed for anyone to decode.
If there’s one thing that’s evident from ‘Bangerz’ is Miley’s incredible chemistry with hip-hop producer Mike WiLL Made It, most notably known for his productions “Tupac Back” (Meek Mill), “No Lie” (2 Chainz), and “Pour It Up” (Rihanna). In his #magicalurbanglory, Mike WiLL secures Miley’s first official comeback single “We Can’t Stop” and makes it the best possible way to reintroduce her to the musical forefront. I don’t think anyone else could start a song with “red cups and sweaty bodies everywhere” and have such a genuine output. There’s drug and alcohol references out of the yin-yang, leading Miley to take all of her anti-role model stereotype critiques and crumple them into balls of paper. “Someone Else” packs a similar impact as “Stop” except with cleaner lyrics. There’s no more party here though, only the tale of true heartbreak over a truly impressive vocal. The EDM-influenced “Drive” is very single-worthy, with Mike’s hard beat literally driving Miley’s vocals right into the sky. “Drive my heart into the night, you can drop the keys off in the morning” Miley belts as she showcases her rich, upper register that usually only rears its head in her live performances. “Hands In The Air” (featuring Ludacris) seems cliché from its title, but it’s way better than all of the other collaborations on the album – combined. Yes, it’s another party anthem, but at least it’s metaphorically meaningful, while echoing yet another subtle drug reference (“I’m dancing, to the sound of my words in the crowd, too high to come down”). But it’s on “Air” that the many Miley-Mike collaborations finally cohesion in terms of the artist she’s becoming, and even Ludacris’ verse adds fire to her sappy list of features.
While Miley’s work with Mike WiLL Made It is the domineering force on ‘Bangerz’, Pharrell’s productions trumps everything else on the album. “#GETITRIGHT” – hashtag necessary – is a funky guitar-laden song with Miley finally displaying her sexiness with a sense of class. “Don’t you wanna feel this fire before it’s gone” she sings with true conviction that her days as a “young sex icon” (SMH) are numbered. Also notable is that “#GETITRIGHT” is probably the only true pop vocal within the set that could compete with the likes of Lady Gaga and Britney Spears. While speaking of Ms. Spears, “On My Own” is reminiscent of her hit single “Boys” with its elements of funk and R&B. It’s apparent that the songs sound similar, but it’s the songwriting theme that really waves the flag for Miley’s artistry. The notion of being “on her own” in the industry may be true, but sadly the theme didn’t carry through on ‘Bangerz’. Out of all the solo songs on the set, “Own” has the most commercial radio appeal. The slow-burner “Rooting For My Baby” features Miley singing in a tender R&B-esque voice about how she’s always in her man’s corner. Pharrell gives Miley a smoother arrangement, and it’s a much needed breath of fresh air from some of the forced urban headaches scattered throughout.
In addition to Mike and Pharrell, there are a few random standouts that work very well. On one end, producer Oren Yoel, most notably known for his work with Asher Roth, produces the album’s opener “Adore You”. Written by Stacy Barthe (Katy Perry’s “Hummingbird Heartbeat”, Rihanna’s “Cheers”), Cyrus croons like a seasoned R&B veteran about the positives to being in love. Miley’s voice sounds much huskier than usual, possibly due to Barthe’s background accompaniment leading the song’s harmonies. On the other end, “Do My Thang”, a solo standout produced by will.i.am, is a finalist for best song on the album. Miley spends the verses rapping and lets her vocals soar over the uber confident bridge and chorus. The “Thang” beat carries a similar knock to first single “Stop” but with an extra surprise by way of the song’s rap format. This could also be a great song to carry her album into next summer if ever pushed as a single.
Although there are quite a few standouts on ‘Bangerz’, it seems as if there’s just as many problems with the disorganized set. “Wrecking Ball” and “Maybe You’re Right” sound like they were from a different direction of the project – one that’s possibly fighting with her own identity. “Ball” is one of the very few songs in which Miley did not co-write, and let’s not mention that she called #guaranteedhitmaker Dr. Luke to helm the track. The song’s video went viral solely because of her nudity, but the Katy-esque “Ball” fails to aid Miley’s right to urban success. “Right” features Miley’s longtime collaborator John Shanks in his only contribution to the entire project. Shanks is largely responsible for her music success as he’s earned co-writing and production credits on Miley’s two largest singles to date (“The Climb” and “The Time Of Our Lives”), but surprising falls flat especially in comparison to the overall hip-hop vibe of the album. Could two of the biggest hitmakers in the history of pop music feel restricted by Miley’s sudden #urbanreboot?
And then there’s the overwhelming, B-list features, in which every single one leaves much more to be desired. “SMS (Bangerz)” (with Britney Spears) is Mike WiLL’s obvious bite to Salt’n’Pepa’s “Push It” with worse results. An acronym for “strutting my stuff”, “SMS” is the only full song on the album and with Miley exchanging bars with another person, and it’s clear that neither her or Britney should quit their day jobs – whatever that is. “Love Money Party” (featuring Big Sean) sounds extremely forced with it’s noun call-out format (ala The LOX’s “Money Power Respect”). The rapid-fire chorus has Miley providing her thesis for why love, money, and parties all relate back to each other (“love ain’t nothing but love, when you learn how to love, ain’t nothing but love”). If the odd sentiment coming from the new urban partygirl isn’t enough, Sean delivers a super-boring verse. “FU” (featuring French Montana) is the biggest fail at appeasing urban and mainstream listeners. Miley’s vocals are very strong, but the cliché’ “F.U.” acronym paired with Montana’s worthless addition makes the song a screeching mess. The dramatic horn and drums give the song somewhat of a vintage appeal, but the two artists never truly mesh together in terms of collaboration. “My Darlin” (with Future) is absolutely pointless, poorly written, and has no relevance for the album’s cohesion. Future doesn’t stray too far from his drunk karaoke singing and doesn’t mesh well with either Miley’s singing attempts or the classic Ben King “Stand By Me” sample. R&B singer Jeremih earns the primary co-write here along with Future – neither of which contributions save the song.
And then there’s the weirdest song on the album (and possibly in Miley’s career) – “4×4” (featuring Nelly). If the collaborations above aren’t random enough, adding St. Louis-bred Nelly – who hasn’t seen a #1 single in over eight years – is a very questionable move. Produced by Pharrell, “4×4” does knock with a heavy beat but gets a country, square dancing remix as Miley begins singing “round and round and away we go”. Not only have we just left the hip-hop club, but we’ve hopped on a plane and travelled to the most redneck part of Hicktown. As someone who doesn’t believe in country rap, the song’s country instrumentations over Pharrell’s beat seems like the exact opposite of the reinvented image Miley’s been trying to portray. In an effort to address the recent overflow of marijuana references in country music, Miley raps “might as well, light a L/ his big fog lights are bright as hell”. But Nelly comes right after her bars and ruins the song even further with cringeworthy lyrics (“I need a chick on time don’t mind being early / a ride or die dollar six thirty”). At least we now know that Miley raps better than Nelly.
So now I’m confused. We have a rebel breakout twerker attempting to be an urban artist but singing about the rodeo. It’s not exactly the stereotypical #whitegirlgoesblack scene – it’s the lack of a full transition. Reinvention gives you the chance to be someone else, but sadly Miley chose way too many personas to embody. Instead of sopping up her comeback disc with features, she could’ve spent more time honing her place in the world of music today. Outside of her image, there’s not much that makes her, well, relevant. After two more singles, will Miley become a figment of our imagination? Or will our hearts of the truest believers discover that she can reach an urban plateau (without technically being urban). ‘Bangerz’ isn’t the way to go in terms of musical progression, but with the right singles it’s a damn sure good stepping stone from where she’s come.