Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants, where we’re back with an old favorite today.
I could only avoid her for so long. Katy Perry hasn’t exactly been slumming it during the PRISM album cycle, but her recent singles haven’t been near automatic number ones the way that early Teenage Dream singles were. “Roar” logged most of its time in the top ten playing host to songs like “Royals” or “Wrecking Ball”; it was a hit, but probably wouldn’t have done as well were it not for the Katy Perry name. Even with a proper Katy Perry rollout, second single “Unconditionally” was a bit of a stumble, not even cracking the top ten.
I want to say that’s PRISM‘s general flailing is more because of what it isn’t than what it is. It’s a slick, big-budget project that radiates beatific positivity in nearly every song; even its “we’re gonna have the good sex tonight” jam has an implicitly committed relationship. The first half is heavy on trend-grabbing singles that aren’t especially catchy, and the back eight are tepid self-reflection ballads. It’s not a fun record, is what I’m saying. Teenage Dream didn’t take itself too seriously, and was sure to show the strain when it did, (see: Perry clearly out of her range on “Firework” and “Teenage Dream”). Even the overkill of “Last Friday Night” is preferable to “Unconditionally”‘s boring seriousness.
That bring us to “Dark Horse”, a black sheep hit that I think I like more for what it isn’t than what it is. “Dark Horse” was originally released a promotional single a week before PRISM came out–one last song to generate album buzz, but isn’t considered a proper Single with backing and a video, and surprisingly gained traction immediately. My favorite thing about this song is that, unlike “Timber”, where the Powers That Be put their money on the screwball hit, Team Perry didn’t expect “Dark Horse” to do anything beyond sell a few more PRISM pre-orders. It outperformed their last planned single, and has gone to number one without a music video behind it. For a major pop star like Katy Perry, that’s nearly unthinkable.
And, credit where it’s due, the first few times that I heard “Dark Horse”, it caught me off guard. Its intro and verses use a trap beat minimal enough to spawn endless remixes, all deep bass and fingersnaps with a quick sample on loop. This isn’t what I expected from Katy Perry, but I think she needed to step out of the Dr. Luke comfort zone that she’s been steadily carving out since One of the Boys; not only are people not responding to it, but she’s also become dull as shit. A little trap-pop tourism doesn’t solve any of that, but at least it’s reassuring to know that Perry can still do some experimentation.
That said, though, the chorus here is pretty weak, like Dr. Luke and Max Martin didn’t know where they could take “Dark Horse” and still keep the hook. I don’t know what could have made it work, but the slow and measured build throws off the natural groove of the verses, and it feels disjointed as a result. Bizarre as it sounds, the chorus would actually be better if it focused less on the lyrics. And, I know that focusing on the lyrics of a Katy Perry song is like considering the vitamins in a milkshake, but there’s nothing else to really do while the beat builds.
“So, do you wanna play with magic?” You mean like the magic used in Disney’s Maleficent, in theaters this May? That’s what I got from your live performance of this song.
“Boy, you should know what you’re falling for/Do you dare to do this?” I mean, it’s a bit late for John Mayer to have second thoughts…
“Cuz I’m coming at you like a dark horse/Are you ready for, ready for/A perfect storm?” Either this song shuffles metaphors like a Vegas dealer, or Katy Perry’s a lot geekier than I thought.
Also not helping “Dark Horse” is the utterly baffling and completely terrible Juicy J verse. I don’t know if they gave him the song late, or he dropped into the studio while planning a Three 6 Mafia reunion, or what, but his verse is the rap equivalent of someone not know what to do with their hands on stage. He spends part of it on the song’s witchcraft imagery, but then goes from hyping her to being under her spell, and there’s no transition between the two, or a reason he throws a Jeff Dahlmer reference in. Perry and Juicy J seem like they didn’t compare notes before recording: she’s your Aphrodite, she’s your only one, and he sees her as this heart-eating beast. Then again, I guess this isn’t the first time an awkward rap verse has sabotaged a Katy Perry single.
Ultimately, I like “Dark Horse” more than either of PRISM‘s last two singles (or most of its album cuts), but ultimately it’s too one dimensional to be anything outside of a novelty song. Once you get past the “oh shit, Katy Perry went grime on us” sell, it wears pretty thin pretty quick, and a so-so chorus with an awful rap verse don’t do it any favors, either. Just release “International Smile” already, dammit.