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Lana Del Rey/
Childish Gambino

[Mail on Sunday, 2012]

Born To Die

The CAMP, London

LANA DEL REY is the nearest thing showbiz reality permits to an overnight sensation. Unheard of this time last year, the self-described “gangsta Nancy Sinatra” is now inescapable.
  Del Rey bears out Oscar Wilde's dictum regarding the only thing worse than being talked about. The suspicious chatter she arouses serves to broaden her fame daily. Say what you like about me, she might reply; just be sure to spell my fake name correctly - something she neglected to do herself on a little-noticed first album.
  Other than killing off that record, she has taken no great pains to deny her earlier, more mundane incarnation: Lizzy Grant, child of upstate New York affluence, underwhelming jazz vocalist, possessor of a mouth less luxuriously upholstered than her new doppelganger's.
  She's somebody else now, the woman who recorded Video Games. This astonishing song, a torpid, haunted dream which withstands countless plays, justifies every bit of notice it has brought her.
  Even an artfully realised persona and a wonderful introductory single will only get you so far. You then need to make an album, and heaven help you if it's a dud. Happily for Del Rey and those who enjoy what she's up to, Born To Die is no such thing.
  Anyone anticipating eleven more tracks as extraordinary as Video Games will naturally be disappointed. They'd be expecting the best album in recent memory. Born To Die is hardly that, either. It shares its signature tune's atmosphere, spins out its slumberous, string-led, Sixties-tinged chamber pop over fifty minutes, but doesn't - can't - once match it.
  What it can do is offer a series of capsule movie plots, all variations on a theme. A lovely, damaged, desperate, thrill-seeking woman prostrates herself before a sleazeball, mistaking his intermittent attention for love.

Some are poor little rich girls seeking surrogate fathers, others are rich little poor girls clinging to sugar daddies. Again and again, Del Rey has her narrators put on dresses and make-up as if donning battle armour, or a spacesuit.
  In Lana Del Rey's world, beauty is currency, money is "the reason we exist", fame is the cure for everything - the resurrection and the life when anonymity is death. These aren't particularly novel observations, but pop is less about what you say than how you say it. Del Rey conveys them with alluring artifice. Sometimes she's a jaded torch singer, sometimes a breathless ingenue, singing over sleek production, reminiscent of the Nineties trip hop inspired by Massive Attack's classic Unfinished Sympathy.
  She may be an entirely synthetic confection, yet to give an indication her ability extends to live performance. Her album may be a slick product craftily assembled by backroom boys. But what of it? Like all good pop stars, she makes the world a more entertaining place, and the value of her music isn't determined by its provenance. Wondering if Lana Del Rey is the real thing makes no more sense than asking the same question about Lady Gaga, Jessica Rabbit or Batman. Ultimately, it doesn't matter who created Lana Del Rey, or why; only that they did, and she's exciting.
  Another pseudonym to conjure with is Childish Gambino, the handle bestowed on California-born comedy writer and TV actor Donald Glover by an Internet Wu-Tang Clan name generator. Glover is the first full-time actor to be a genuine asset to rap. He turns out catchy, astute ruminations on the art form and his unlikely place in it.
  If hip hop has for 25 years been the genre in which nobody smiles, Glover looks as if he's trying to make up for all of it in the early minutes of his first London show. Playing a sweaty basement venue which shares its name with his current album, Camp, he doesn't break rap's rules so much as ignore them. His hyper-energetic, expressive stage act owes more to punk frontmen than any of his rap predecessors. They were too cool for school; he, an avowed geek, isn't afraid to be clever in ways other than street-smart, while dodging the pieties that often clog up "conscious" rap. He's a refreshing presence in a scene lately given to formula, and it's heartening to see his star rise as it has.

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