Happy 5th Anniversary to Lana Del Rey’s second studio album and major-label debut, Born to Die, originally released in the UK January 30, 2012 and in the US January 31, 2012.
“I heard that you like the bad girls honey, is that true?” – Lana Del Rey (“Video Games”)
Vocalist Lana Del Rey made her official major-label debut with Born to Die, merging the classic soul of Nancy Sinatra with Lykke Li’s off-kilter pop sensibilities. Talented producers like Jeff Bhasker (Bruno Mars’ “Locked Out of Heaven”), Emile Haynie (Kanye West’s “Runaway”), and Al Shux (Jay Z’s “Empire State of Mind”) produce sublime soundscapes juxtaposed with lyrics of broken hearts, fractured dreams, and people falling in and out of love. Commercially, Born to Die shipped 7 million units worldwide, yielded six singles (four of which reached the Billboard Top 10 charts internationally), and its music videos—epic short films that were thought-provoking, big-budget, and headline-grabbing—would’ve made Michael Jackson proud.
The opening four-song lineup is on par with the elite pop records of this decade, peering into the shadowy corners of relationships that most record labels wouldn’t allow their artists to explore. The title track details an unhealthy relationship that would leave a wicked smile on the faces of comic-book icons Harley Quinn and the Joker. “Off to the Races” ventures into co-dependency as Del Rey’s vocal delivery seems to draw inspiration from Erykah Badu’s 1997 debut Baduizm. The heaving desperation of “Blue Jeans” sweeps across a humid backdrop of surf-rock guitar and tumbling drums like a vaporwave. “I will love you ‘til the end of time / I would wait a million years,” she pleads. “Promise you’ll remember that you’re mine / Baby, can you see through the tears?”
Album centerpiece “Video Games” is the crowning jewel of the 12-song set complete with smoky vocals, cinematic strings reminiscent of Disney’s Fantasia, and delicate piano chords. Co-written by Justin Parker, Del Rey pulls lyrical inspiration from two of her past relationships. “‘Swinging in the backyard, pull up in your fast car, whistling my name.’ That was what happened, you know?,” Del Rey recalled to Dazed back in 2011. “He’d come home, and I’d see him. But then the chorus, ‘Heaven is a place on earth with you, tell me all the things you wanna do’ wasn’t like that. That was the way that I wished it was—the melody sounds so compelling and heavenly because I wanted it to be that way.”
Following the somber “Video Games” comes the slinky boom-bap of “Diet Mountain Dew.” The transition—both thematically and sonically—is a bit jarring, but it doesn’t feel out of place, and classic hip-hop fans will likely appreciate Lana for sampling the piano medley from Nas and Lauryn Hill’s 1996 hit single “If I Ruled the World (Imagine That).” The euphoric dream-pop of “Dark Paradise” and “Radio” confirm that she can hang with the likes of Ellie Goulding or London Grammar. On late-album highlight “Carmen,” we learn of a young woman battling with substance abuse (“’You don’t want to be like me / looking for fun, getting high for free’”) and prostitution (“Only seventeen, but she walks the streets so mean”). The Broadway-style orchestration and music-box piano melody give this cautionary tale an enchanting yet disturbing quality.
Unfortunately, Born to Die loses steam midway through the record. “National Anthem” re-uses the “take your body downtown” lyric from “Video Games” while “Summertime Sadness” recycles Lana’s red dress from “Off to the Races” and feels clingier than “Blue Jeans.” On “Million Dollar Man,” Del Rey sounds as if she’s sleepwalking which, sadly, detracts from what would have otherwise been an interesting track.
However, the saving grace is album closer “This Is What Makes Us Girls” with transfixing images of “table dancing at the local dive” and “Drinking cherry schnapps in the velvet night.” While attending a Connecticut boarding school—against her will—Del Rey would sneak out and experience the nightlife which would later birth the inspiration for this moody ballad.
It’s crystal-clear that Lana Del Rey is the mastermind behind this R-rated, retro-pop fantasy. Her voice strikes you like fine wine with a dash of high-class liquor, and her all-star cast of collaborators combine various influences—orchestral pop, electronic R&B, and alternative rock—into songs that function as cinematic dream capsules. Despite its flaws in several places, Born to Die paints a realistic portrait of addiction, sexual obsession, abnormality, and fear. In many ways, Lana Del Rey is an anomaly in today’s formulaic world of pop music, a young lady who’s runway gorgeous, fascinated with the Old Hollywood era, and confronting her personal demons rather than evading them.