In "Sheezus," the title track of Lily Allen's first album in five years, the quick-witted Brit song stylist takes a look around the female pop landscape and sizes up the competition.
"RiRi isn't scared of Katy Perry's roaring/ Queen B's going back to the drawing," Allen starts out, referencing Rihanna, Perry, and Beyoncé in the chorus' first couplet, before going on to mention Lorde and Lady Gaga.
"The second best will never cut it for the divas," Allen sings, returning to announce her ambitious intentions. "Give me that crown, bitch," she concludes. "I wanna be Sheezus."
Confused reaction assumed that Allen, who established herself as an upstart agent of pop-ska snark with Alright, Still in 2006, was merely out to take her peers down. Catfight!
What's up on "Sheezus," however, is something subtler. Allen's back to reenter the fray, all right, but she's trepidatious. "Not gonna lie, though, I'm kinda scared," she sings, aware she "can't just come back, jump on the mic and do the same thing."
More to the point, she sees she's no different from anyone else in cheekily staking her claim to be a dominating female pop presence analogous to Kanye West's outrageous alter ago, Yeezus. "Sheezus" is a song that celebrates competitive spirit, not a battle track.
As it happens, the album Sheezus (Warner Bros nolead begins **1/2 nolead ends ), arrives the same day as new releases by two other formidable left-of-center female pop acts: Nikki Nack (4AD ***1/2), the joyfully rhythmic new album by Merrill Garbus of Tune-Yards, and I Never Learn (Atlantic ***), the swooning heartbreak set by Swedish singer Lykke Li.
Neither Garbus nor Li pretends to be playing an arena as mainstream as Allen's (although the songs on Nikki Nack are actually far catchier than those on Sheezus). And, truth be told, Allen is not really in the same league as the chart champions she name-checks in the title song. She's too much of a smart aleck, too acerbic by nature.
Sheezus' first single, "It's Hard Out Here," a critique of sexist pop-culture double standards, is more Allen's style. "If I told you about my sex life, you'd call me a slut," she rhymes over banging beats. "When boys be talking about their bitches, no one's making a fuss." Too bad the message got lost when Allen surrounded herself with twerking black dancers in the video, and seemed clueless as to why anyone was offended.
Those two provocative turns bookend Sheezus. What's in between turns out to be less edgy, and more uneven, than Allen's previous albums. Sheezus has a bit of an identity crisis. At times, Allen seems supremely up for the challenge of writing mature yet frisky pop songs, as on "L8 CMMER," her ode to her husband's sexual skills.
But elsewhere, the 28-year-old mother of two seems unsure of herself, as in the soft-focus ballad "Take My Place." She revs up for an awkwardly titled strike against Internet trolls, "URL Badman." But an odd pair of tracks suggest she's been hunkered down in the burbs spinning Paul Simon's Graceland. "As Long as I Got You" is a competent Cajun dance tune, and "Life for Me" an out-of-character dalliance in South African township jive.
That kind of indigenous-rhythm move comes much more naturally to Garbus. Like Arcade Fire's Reflektor, Garbus' Nikki Nack is the product of a trip to Haiti, apparently the destination of choice for indie acts intent on absorbing vodou mystery, just as classic rock bands once traveled to Morocco.
The difference is that the rhythmic pulse is immanent within brightly animated Nikki Nack songs like "Find a New Way" and "Water Fountain," rather than acting as window dressing. After a two-week visit to the island nation, Garbus, 34, studied Haitian drumming back home in Oakland, and more important, learning from Molly Allen Leiken's 1987 book How to Write a Hit Song.
Rebuilding her musical approach, Garbus came up with a bright and shiny creation even more delightfully intoxicating than 2011's impressive Tune-Yards album whokill.
This one plays out like an intricate, increasingly ebullient game of musical Double Dutch, taking unabashed pleasure in the physical act of music-making. "Oh, my God, I use my lungs," she exults on "Real Thing." "Soft and loud, anyway feels good!" Her enthusiasm is infectious. Tune-Yards plays Union Transfer on June 15.
Li's I Never Learn is quite the opposite. You wouldn't call it fun, exactly, though it does deliver its share of pleasures. It's the third album in what Li - who plays the Non-Comm convention at World Cafe Live on May 16 - is now calling "the final installment of a conceptual trio" that began with her 2008 debut Youth Novels and continued with 2011's Wounded Rhymes.
Youth Novels' calling card was "A Little Bit," a delightfully flirtatious trifle that now sounds startlingly carefree, considering Li's artistic arc since. With Wounded Rhymes, the now-28-year-old Swede toughened up and asserted her feminist prerogative to "Get Some."
I Never Learn is a more goth affair. Li embraces 1960s Phil Spector wall-of-sound production while claiming her geographical birthright to Scandinavian gloom and doom. Songs like "Never Gonna Love Again" and "Sleeping Alone" play out like Nancy Sinatra lacing up her boots for an Ingmar Bergman film.
The centerpiece is "Love Me Like I'm not Made of Stone," a mostly acoustic plea after the manner of Felice and Boudleaux Bryant's "Love Hurts." It cuts to the core with an aching plea for a human connection strong enough to jolt the songstress out of her never-gonna-love-again blues. Li is definitely guilty of wallowing in her own sorrow, but I suspect her pity party will help many fans through a dark night of the soul.