This is the most Taylor Swift has ever challenged her listeners and it isn’t close.
Crossing over from country pop to straight pop was a piece of cake. Shania Twain and Faith Hill had already done it in the years leading up to Swift, plus popular country music has by and large just been pop for years now. Going from one to the other is a well-traveled path for female megastars; you can go back and forth between them without ever having to stay, as Lady Gaga and Beyonce have proven with “Yoü and I,” “Daddy Lessons” and much of the “Joanne” album.
With “Reputation,” another departure has seemingly been promised, but it isn’t from one safe area to another. We’ve already discussed Swift’s “first single trick,” where she throws everyone for a loop with the first song she releases from an album (“Shake it Off,” “Look What You Made Me Do”), but now she’s released a second “Reputation” track and we’re officially in uncharted territory. For the first time, the listener is warranted in asking what the freaking fuck they just heard.
PHASE 2 OF THE PLAN
When “Look What You Make Me Do” came out and everybody lost their goddamn minds, it was worth keeping in mind that Swift still had people like Max Martin and Shellback at her disposal. Jack Antonoff was the right person for “Look What You Made Me Do,” but the super producers could not be far behind.
In what should not be a surprise, the follow-up was indeed a Martin/Shellback collaboration. Furthermore, “…Ready For It?” was co-written by Ali Payami, best-known for writing “Can’t Feel My Face” with Martin.
So if Antonoff was the right man for the disjointed “Look What You Made Me Do,” was this group the right choice for a hip-hop crossover? Yes, to a degree — this could have been handled better by Jeff Bhasker (see below) — but Martin and Shellback proved with “Shake it Off” that they can make literally anything sound palatable. Plus, they’ve got plenty of experience dipping their toe in the waters of other genres with Swift, as they did with the dub-step elements of “I Knew You Were Trouble.” Still, this isn’t something you would normally get from Martin, as I’ll explain in a bit.
THIS IS NOT A TRIED-AND-TRUE METHOD
“…Ready For It?” is a pop artist making a rap song. It’s something that’s been done before, but Swift is doing it differently, and that’s not necessarily a good idea.
In “Royals,” Lorde worked over a track so sparse that the vocal was left as vulnerable as it often is in rap. The signature kicks and snaps left all that space set up Lorde to sink or swim. She used unorthodox harmonies (parallel fifths have always been considered a no-no in vocal harmony) to make as unique a song top-40 had seen in a long time.
Fun.’s “Some Nights” album, of which Antonoff was a part, was co-written and produced by Jeff Bhasker, who had ample success in both rap (producing “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”) and pop (Beyonce’s “4”). He knew how to cultivate a sound that would please everyone and he did it not using a single hi-hat on the entire album. In fact, only one song on the album had cymbals of any kind, resulting in a big, heavy sound that would make Bhasker very rich on subsequent projects (“Just Give Me a Reason,” “Girl on Fire”).
That’s not what Taylor does on “…Ready For It?” She is trying to make a rap song by actually rapping, which is ambitious because rapping is fucking hard. She’s not good at it.
And it isn’t like she’s just rapping over a Taylor Swift-sounding song. She’s rapping over a trap beat. Do you know what you call a song that has rap over a trap beat followed by somebody singing the chorus? A rap song. So for as much Taylor is “crossing over,” there isn’t much of a gap to be bridged here. She’s just making rap.
This is a major deviation, which would be less surprising if other people were behind it. Instead, she’s breaking the rules of pop with people who aren’t typically known for doing so. Legend has it that Martin told Lorde one of her songs (“Green Light” or “Royals,” depending on who you ask) was “incorrect songwriting.” Now he’s making songs like this, showing that Taylor isn’t the only one changing.
DULL IS THE NEW DYNAMIC
You’re probably not shouting the chorus of either “Reputation” song at the top of your lungs yet. That’s because of a dynamic choice that’s shown up on both songs so far: The verses are more exciting than the chorus.
In the case of “Look What You Made Me Do,” a sludgy verse is followed by a brace-yourself pre-chorus overrun with sampled claps and clanging piano eighth notes. It seems to be lifting off in its final measure, but instead it drops to a chorus that essentially consists of nothing: just a kick and a snare with no other instrumentation aside from one barely audible synth bass note, over which Swift talks her way through the extremely minimal chorus. Subsequent choruses have more (hi-hats and Antonoffian noises), but the dynamic structure remains sludgy verse, exciting pre-chorus, fall off a cliff.
Though produced by a different (better) group, “…Ready For It?” is dynamically similar. The verse is built off a trap beat alternating between a tight snare and a bigger one. The pre-chorus keeps it up and, like in “Look What You Made Me Do,” builds like crazy in the last measure before dropping off. The chorus is the most Swift-sounding thing on either of these songs, but it’s got no percussion until it starts feeding back into the verse. The second chorus adds a light beat, but it remains dynamically smaller than the rest of the song. The only time the chorus takes off is on its third wrong, which brings back the trap beat from the verse and adds elements from the bridge to finish the song.
THE ALBUM’S REPUTATION SO FAR: It was obvious that Swift was not going to make an album of LWYMMDs, but I’d be lying if I said I expected this for the second song. Both of these songs would be the most out-there on any of Swift’s previous albums and it wouldn’t be close. This project will be accessible enough because it’s a Taylor Swift project, but she is officially not playing it safe. We’ll find out soon enough if that’s good or bad.