In the storied lineage of pop music rivalries, Taylor Swift vs. Kanye West is among the strangest. Beatles vs. Rolling Stones is defined as clean-cut mop-tops against rough-and-tumble street toughs, but they were ultimately different shades of the same basic framework.
Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. had geographic differences, but were sonically similar enough that, aside from regional purists, their fan bases overlapped substantially.
But Taylor vs. Kanye didn’t make as much sense on the surface, representing two different genres. Each has seen overwhelming success and wants to be loved, just perhaps in different ways.
Following the critically adored, but commercially lukewarm, “Yeezus,” West released the far less experimental “The Life of Pablo,” which sold far better. Choosing sales over critics does not appear to be the Taylor Swift model, however.
And while she has been praised, from the country-pop of her first three albums to the outright pop excursions of “Red” and “1989,” the consensus album of the 2010s is Kanye West’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” The idea that Swift and West have a rivalry still seems silly, but it apperas to have driven Swift to take the biggest risk of her career in “Reputation." With “1989,” she was trying to make a great album. With “Reputation,” she’s trying to make the album of its generation.
The album opener, “…Ready For It?,” is an overt musical nod to “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” with the heavy bass and drum machines strongly reminiscent of West's “Hell of a Life.” And while “End Game,” which features Ed Sheeran and Kanye collaborator Future, is more in the vein of “Red”-era Swift, ripe with Max Martin and Shellback’s songwriting and production flourishes, it’s devoid of even the slightest country music influence. “1989” was a pop album, but it’s the kind of pop album that would fit in the music library of a country fan. It becomes apparent early on this is not that kind of album.
“I Did Something Bad” and “Don’t Blame Me” take on a more distinctly rock sound than anything Swift has released previously. The former echoes the reggae-pop-rock of one of Martin and Shellback’s more noteworthy hits, Maroon 5’s “One More Night,” with “Don’t Blame Me” a slow burner with new-wave synths and drum machines.
“Delicate” feels like a future single in the vein of “Wildest Dreams" -- minimalist pop with light echoes. It leads into “Look What You Made Me Do,” the album’s controversial first single, a divisive taste of the album’s dark new directions.
“So It Goes…,” “Gorgeous” and “Getaway Car” follow a somewhat similar pattern, retreading territory explored earlier in the album. The songs are all fine, though the initial excitement of the album starts to wear off a bit. “King of My Heart” lyrically fits the mold of her younger days, but is now layered in autotune.
The “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” parallel is “Lost in the World,” a song which has an interesting sound and some interesting pieces, but which ultimately feels a bit incomplete as a song.
“Dancing With Our Hands Tied," is a hallmark display of Swift’s vocal talent. While she lacks the power of a Beyonce or Adele, she is able to consistently evoke vulnerability. Comparatively, “Dress” feels a bit lightweight. And while “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” borders on being a novelty song compared to the rest of the album, the inclusion of it is a welcome fit on a release that occasionally takes itself a bit too seriously.
“Call It What You Want” is more dynamic than “Gorgeous,” its predecessor in the line of promotional singles, and it deserves some level of credit for that. But the album closer, “New Year’s Day,” a somber ballad, which most obviously hearkens back to her previous albums, is what gives “Reputation” light at the end of the tunnel.
While she proclaimed the old Taylor dead in “Look What You Made Me Do,” Swift clearly has no intention of actually killing the old Taylor. She just doesn’t want to be stuck following a predictable formula. And in the end, while “Reputation” is no “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” and will certainly alienate some of her more conventional-leaning fans, it is the most uncompromising album of her career by a mile.
Though perhaps not her best, it is her most interesting, and that one of the five biggest pop stars in the world would take such a risk is a triumph in and of itself. “New Year’s Day” implies what we should have known all along — Taylor Swift will not be beholden to expectation nor formula in her future endeavors.