The spoken-word intro is a risky move, especially when you mean it — when it isn’t the kitschy, oh my God, Becky of “Baby Got Back,” or the come-to-Jesus girl talk that Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately?” stirs to life. We’re at a weird moment for such plain, unabashed sincerity: Irony abounds, but so do inspirational Instagram quotes, shared widely and earnestly with little regard for accurate attribution. Still, it’s a strange time to start a pop song with a solid 60 seconds of spoken-word poetry, especially poetry about dreams, God, and death.
But for her first single in nearly four years, Kesha did exactly that.
If there’s anything to be said for Kesha, over the course of a now near-decade long career (her breakout single, “Tik Tok,” was released in the summer of 2009), it’s that she goes for it: Biting hard into the playful, white-girl-on-Spring-Break rap of her debut; dousing herself with glitter for those early performances, her lips and limbs streaked with sparkle; and, in recent years, battling for her artistic freedom in court, in a well-documented, acrimonious struggle to dissolve recording contracts with her label, Sony, and her longtime producer and alleged sexual abuser, Lukasz “Dr. Luke” Gottwald.
Thursday morning, Kesha released the video for “Praying,” a single she teased last week on iTunes. In an accompanying essay in Lenny letter, she described the process behind the song, which is a collaboration with Macklemore’s Ryan Lewis: “I have channeled my feelings of severe hopelessness and depression, I’ve overcome obstacles, and I have found strength in myself even when it felt out of reach.”
The video deploys Kesha’s go-to aesthetic — Lisa Frank at Coachella — though this time loaded with electric religious imagery, like she stumbled on the set of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet in the Colorado Desert. (Kesha called on director Jonas Akerlund, a maestro of the music video for almost 20 years: He’s directed videos for U2, Rihanna, Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and was behind several videos from Beyoncé’s visual albums, including one of Lemonade’s most iconic and parodied numbers, “Hold Up.”)
But those who know Kesha best from her heavily AutoTuned party anthems might be stunned to hear her sound, which swells with feeling. And the track starts with Kesha’s spoken-word riff, which goes on for a full minute:
“Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams? Those horrible dreams that seem like they last forever? If I am alive, why? If there is a God or whatever, something, somewhere, why have I been abandoned by everyone and everything I’ve ever known? I’ve ever loved? Stranded. What is the lesson? What is the point? God, give me a sign, or I have to give up. I can’t do this anymore. Please just let me die. Being alive hurts too much.”
The lyrics that follow aren’t exactly subtle: “After everything you’ve done, I can thank you for how strong I have become… I had to learn how to fight for myself / and we both know all the truth I could tell.” But her hook, which sounds on the surface like the hard-won ability to wish a former foe all the best — “I hope you’re somewhere praying” — still has some venom in it, especially in the tart, cutting way she sings about how she hopes her song’s target finds peace “falling on your knees.” The image of that, in the context of the assaults Kesha has alleged, is as vengeful as it is reverent, maybe more so.
The single and the upcoming album, Rainbow, due out August 11, are being released under RCA, a Sony subsidiary. Despite Kesha’s fears, stated in court, that Sony would do little to promote new music in the event she could release it, RCA seems to be getting behind the single. The official RCA Twitter feed has “Praying” art as its header.
But was Dr. Luke involved — and will he profit from — her new single? It’s not immediately clear what legal wrangling went on behind the scenes to make the song and album possible, and what its release means for Dr. Luke.
Kesha co-wrote the song with Ryan Lewis (who also produced it), Ben Abraham and Andrew Joslyn. Certainly Kesha’s language around the release, not to mention the conspicuous absence of Dr. Luke’s sound from the song (“Praying,” for better or worse, is very clearly the product of the man who brought you Macklemore’s biggest hits), would suggest she was able to record without the producer’s influence.
And Dr. Luke’s partnership with Sony is reportedly no more. According to The Hollywood Reporter, which obtained court documents to back up its findings, Dr. Luke’s contract with Sony expired this spring and wasn’t renewed. He is no longer CEO of Kemosabe Records, the imprint he established under the Sony umbrella in 2011, “and the company asserts he no longer has authority to act on its behalf.”
A report from Entertainment Weekly contradicted those findings, however, with a source telling the magazine that Dr. Luke “still has a relationship” with Sony, even without a formal contract in place.
Kesha’s efforts to be released from her recording contracts in court have been thwarted at every turn. The abuse she alleges is stomach-churning and all-encompassing: She claims Dr. Luke drugged and raped her, psychologically abused her to the point where she developed an eating disorder for which she spent two months in rehab, made her fear for her career and her family’s safety, and intimidated her into submission, preventing her from going public or seeking criminal charges. (Dr. Luke denies all the allegations.)
But all her attempts to dissolve her contract have failed. As ThinkProgress reported earlier this year, Kesha’s amended lawsuit was dismissed by the same judge who has overseen much of this case and, thus far, has sided with Dr. Luke:
In her suit, Sebert says, “You can get a divorce from an abusive spouse. You can dissolve a partnership if the relationship becomes irreconcilable. The same opportunity — to be liberated from the physical, emotional, and financial bondage of a destructive relationship — should be available to a recording artist.” As the Hollywood Reporter notes, “usually, judges are fairly permissive by allowing amended complaints.” Allowing the complaint wouldn’t have been an automatic win for Sebert; it simply would have given her the chance to present her arguments.
The judge rejected Kesha’s amended lawsuit, saying that Dr. Luke’s abusive behavior was “foreseeable” at the time at which Kesha signed her contract.
If Dr. Luke is no longer with Sony, but Kesha’s music is still getting released, is that a win for the pop star? Remember that in her court papers, Kesha referenced reports about the then-approaching expiration date of Dr. Luke’s deal with Sony, imploring the judge to act quickly because she would be even more vulnerable if she didn’t have Sony “as a go-between” in her dealings with the producer. And Dr. Luke still has defamation claims against Kesha; he asserts that her rape allegations are false and have tarnished his reputation and career.
“Praying” might sound like the rallying cry of a valiant survivor. And musically, emotionally, it is. Kesha has spent months insisting, in court and in the media, that she recorded plenty of new music she was aching to release to her fans. And now, finally, the first of a batch of new Kesha songs is out in the world. But legally, Kesha is quite a long way from being able to claim a victory.