On her debut album, songwriter Bebe Rexha rises to the challenge in a catchy skillfully assembled Pop Music release.
Album Grade: B+
Professional songwriters who found success writing for other artists have a dubious track record when it comes to recording their own albums. Largely unknown to the public, these skilled artisans are the backbone of a music industry built on big chart-toppers.
After penning multiple hits for Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Rod Stewart, Heart, and Aerosmith among others, Grammy winning songsmith Holly Knight formed a band and released her debut album. Her band, Device, released their 1986 album to great industry expectations and was met with a resounding thud on the charts and at radio. The problem was in the songs. They were simply horrible. They were bland, paint-by-numbers compositions devoid of personality. The songs failed because they lacked a clear vision of what the artist at the center was all about.
Fortunately, that is clearly not the case for songwriter Bebe Rexha. Her album explodes and sizzles with attitude, personality and vision. Since 2009, Rexha has authored hits for Iggy Azalea, Nick Jonas, Selena Gomez as well as Eminem and Rihanna’s huge 2013 single “The Monster.” Along the way, she has been careful to establish her own artistic vision through collaborations with G-Eazy on “Me, Myself & I” and recent turns as the opening act for Bruno Mars and Katy Perry.
Expectations begins with the oddly haunting “Ferrari.” The track’s tentative guitar sounds in the beginning set up the powerful chorus to follow. Rexha’s confident, well executed pop vocals blend brilliantly with the background harmonies as she uses the metaphor of the speedy luxury car to express the lost moments and missed opportunities of a life lived in a hurry. While the metaphor and the sentiment may not break new ground, it is her vocal delivery, musical setting, and quality of the writing that bring an energetic freshness.
Rexha writes most self-deprecatingly in “I’m a Mess” while shading the song’s clever lyrics with a sense of optimism. This celebration of imperfections and insecurities in a quest for self-improvement is filled with melodic hooks and a lively sense of vigor. It is self-reflective in order to determine the broken parts that need fixing and catchy enough to convey confidence. Rexha’s musical interpolation of Meredith Brooks 1997 single “Bitch” in the chorus shows a writer who has clearly studied her art. It is also a tribute to her songwriting code of ethics that Rexha extended a co-writing credit to Shelly Pieken, the writer of the Brooks hit.
Admittedly, Rexha’s voice is not technically “great” in the way generally attributed to artists like Ariana Grande; it is perfect on this collection of songs. Bursting with attitude and drive, Rexha makes best use of what she does have. For this kind of music, nothing could be better. Much like the songs that fit the personality of the artist, the voice also fits the songs themselves.
Lyrical themes of sadness, lust, loneliness, and jealousy are common staples of the songwriter’s arsenal. Rexha’s attention to detail as she marries these tools with catchy melodies and instrumentation make this album a delight. Unique melodies are not just found in the vocals, but in the instruments that accompany them as well. Expectations is a pop album leveraged with hooks and ear-worms from top to bottom with new details revealing themselves over multiple plays.
Musically, Expectations is the sound of now. While her songwriting craft is timeless, the production levels and attitude reflect the current sensibilities of radio and the charts. “Self Control” mixes electronic beats with a calypso/samba flavor as bright synth horns accent the rhythmic phrasing of Rexha’s voice. Motifs of desire and romantic longing may be common in songs, but rarely are they displayed in such a joyful way.
Over the span of Expectation’s 44-minute running time, the 14 tracks play more like a “Greatest Hits” album than a debut. Stuffed with catchy melodic hooks, danceable beats and tempos, Rexha plays the part of the Pop Star on the verge of exploding to perfection. It will be a pleasure to see what her next set of expectations will lead to.
Bottom Line: This is what a pop album assembled by a truly self-aware songwriting craftsman sounds like. Pop music that is refreshing, clever and catchy. A winning debut for the summer of 2018 from an artist poised to be around for a very, very long time.
By Daniel G. Moir