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Kesha's Rainbow turned pain into catharsis in a year that desperately needed it

2017’s most powerful album answered a pressing, crucial question about enduring abuse: What comes next?

Kemosabe Records/RCA Records

“Praying” starts as a simple retelling of a story, horrified at the facts and hollowed out by the effort of remembering them. “Well, you almost had me fooled — told me that I was nothing with you,” Kesha breathes, backed by piano chords as simple as they are steady. But here, right when it seems as though she’s about to launch into a plaintive ballad, she flips the narrative right on its head as she insists that “after everything you’ve done, I can thank you for how strong I have become.”

The twist to her suffering now revealed, the piano is joined by a synthetic string that swells in tandem with her steadying voice; by the time she gets to the chorus, her words are electric with defiance. “I hope you’re somewhere praying,” she sings, her voice striking an impressive and downright startling balance between seething and pleading, which only gets more pronounced each time she returns to these words. “I hope your soul is changing — I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees, praying.”

This verse — like Kesha’s decision to make “Praying” her first single in four years — is calculated, daring, brilliant. After four years of forced silence, hanging in the balance of a lawsuit she brought against her longtime producer Dr. Luke for “sexually, physically, and verbally” abusing her, Kesha knew she had to make it count.

Her deepest and most personal pains had been read aloud in courtrooms, obsessively reported, and ultimately rejected as cause for severing her recording contract. In February 2016, a year and a half before the explosive allegations against Harvey Weinstein sparked waves of exhausted women voicing their horrific experiences with sexual assault in the workplace and beyond, Kesha set off a lonely match, hoping something, anything, she said about Dr. Luke would catch fire and burn her past into scorched earth.

By the time she released “Praying” — followed by Rainbow, her first album since 2012’s Warrior — Kesha had already alleged abuse against her keeper in public, had her claim rejected, and made peace with the fact that any new music she makes for the foreseeable future will still be produced under his eye. And judging by the picture Rainbow paints of mourning and healing and even joy, she processed what all of that means, and found some kind of peace.

Rainbow is more than a shrine to anger — which makes it not just special, but necessary

By any measure, Rainbow is an achievement. It doesn’t ditch the wanton partying anthems that made Kesha famous so much as it sidesteps them, indulging her country music roots while keeping her snarl intact. And yes, it finds fuel in the pulsing anger that drives “Praying,” the kind of righteous rage that vibrates through your fingertips if you let it — which, if 2017 is anything to go by, she is far from alone in feeling.

When I first listened to “Praying,” I marveled at its ability to turn raw pain into a controlled release. When I heard Kesha sing it in concert, just a few days after the allegations against Harvey Weinstein first broke, I felt it boiling in my guts. The same holds true for Rainbow in general: Each time I returned to it, always more exhausted and furious than the time before, I leaned on it even harder as a release of my own.

But Rainbow is so much more than a shrine to anger — and that’s ultimately what makes it feel so resonant and important this year in particular. The best encapsulation of what Rainbow is really about comes in its opening track, “Bastards,” a song that’s less about excoriating vindictive assholes than encouraging and celebrating those who would stand up in the face of vindictive assholes.

That spirit of celebration and encouragement is what makes up Rainbow’s firmament, which “Praying” streaks across like a bolt of furious lightning, electrifying the album but not defining it. It’s the fifth song on the album, and the nine following it don’t even try to touch its climactic fury. Instead, Kesha pivots off “Praying” to sing about finding herself in her darkest days. She belts a go-girl anthem of liberation with “Woman” (“I’m a motherfucking woman, baby, all right / I don’t need a man to be holding me too tight”), sings an inclusive “hymn for the hymnless” on “Hymn,” and owns her mistakes and says a candid goodbye to her old lifestyle in “Learn to Let Go.” She even finds time to dance with the barn-burning twofer of “Boogie Feet” and “Boots.”

Most impressive, however, is that Kesha takes the time to rejoice in a new, fierce, cheeky kind of love. She luxuriates in longing on “Finding You,” one of my favorite songs on the album, which is as straightforward as love ballads get. She slows things down with a cover of Dolly Parton’s “Old Flames (Can’t Hold a Candle to You),” dueting with Dolly herself on a song that Kesha’s mother co-wrote. She has fun with an imagined affair with “Godzilla,” an unappreciated monster she bonds with over food court fries. Finally, she signs off with “Spaceship,” crooning that she’s going to be okay, because a spaceship full of fellow weirdos is “gonna come back to me, gonna rescue me,” earthly bullshit be damned.

So as much as I want to say that Rainbow is the embodiment of righteous rage 2017 needed, that wouldn’t be true at all — and that’s what makes it so special. With this album, Kesha gives herself a space to release her rage, but also recognizes the incredible power in honesty, self-reflection, and having the guts to stare injustice in the face and tell it to fuck off.

Rainbow’s greatest triumph is not hearing Kesha rip out the gnarled pain that had been nesting inside her, or finding catharsis in defiance — it’s that it makes a point of expressing the frustration, hurt, and even joy in what comes next. And at a time when the future is so hazy it’s sometimes hard to see straight at all, knowing that there is some light to be found in even the darkest days is nothing short of a gift.

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