Can Eminem's protege break through on her own?
On “Don’t Look Down,” Skylar Grey’s extremely long-awaited Interscope debut, out today, the singer/songwriter has catchy beats aplenty and often has something poignant to say. The two don’t always intersect, but when they do, they are powerful.
Grey has been a fixture in the music industry for nearly 10 years, ever since she signed a publishing deal with Universal as a songwriter at 18. She released an album under her real name, Holly Brook, which tanked, and she has spent the last several years retrenching and working on her songwriting. She approached producer Alex Da Kid and the two wrote Eminem/Rihanna’s “Love the Way You Lie” together. The pair also co-wrote Dr. Dre and Eminem’s “I Need a Doctor,” on which she is the featured artist. She floated a few singles two years ago that didn’t hit (and aren’t on the album) before focusing on “Don’t Look Down,” which Eminem executive produced.
One thing that’s clear from the first track is you don’t want to make Grey see red. Her voice may be fairly tame, but her threats are not. On album opener, “Back From The Dead,” she tells of reuniting with an ex-lover, who skipped out on her. Against a rat-a-tat persistent beat provided by Blink-182’s Travis Barker, she objects to his return just when she seems to be getting her life back together. “I’m so confused, I don’t know what to feel/should I throw my arms around you or kill you for real,” she sings, and she sounds like she means it. Big Sean plays counterpoint as the lover trying to worm his way back in.
Those death threats become real on “Final Warning,” a tune that plays out like part 2 to “Love The Way You Lie,” (she wrote it at the same time). The track opens with a steady synth beat with Grey’s voice recalling Dido’s sometimes flat delivery, but as the song progresses, it becomes clear that she will no longer put up with his abuse: “Go into the kitchen, coming back with a knife because I’ve had enough this time...if someone’s going to get hurt, it’s not going to be me.” The sound of a domestic battle plays in the background until it ends with the gunshot. Does the fact that she’s the one pulling the trigger make it OK since it seems to be an act of self defense?
After this rather dark opening couplet, Grey runs through a gamut of experiences and styles: from dealing with an unexpected pregnancy on the aptly titled “Shit, Man!” (with a rap from Angel Haze) to “White Suburban,” a jazzy, piano closer about her “first time” and the sadness she feels when her former paramour looks at her with indifferent “disregard.” She veers from playful to deadly serious thematically, from Alanis Morissette on “Pulse” (listen and see if it doesn’t remind you of “You Oughta Know”) to sounding like Sheryl Crow backed by a beat machine on “Religion.”
There’s much to like about the album, especially the thoughtfulness that went into some of the lyrics, and Grey’s voice, while fairly standard, has a certain charm. However, there are times when there’s such a disparity between the strength of the beats vs. the strength of the lyrics that miles separate them, no more so than on “C’mon Let Me Ride,” the first single that came out in December featuring Eminem. The beats are ridiculously infectious and even though the song is meant to be lightheaded, tongue-in-cheek and full of sexual innuendo, the lyrics are so inane: “I’m not like the sluts in this town/They make me blah in my mouth,” it’s hard to get through it without grimacing (the song peaked at No. 33). Other times, the beats dominate a track so much, such as on “Glow On the Dark,” that they overwhelm the uplifting message and her voice.
“Don’t Look Down” sounds like Grey made the album she wanted to: one that shows her many different sides: lover, fighter, muse... but your appreciation for it will depend upon your tolerance for the often misplaced reliance on beats.