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Album Review: Halsey Swings for the Fences With ‘Hopeless Fountain Kingdom’

Variety logo Variety 6/2/2017 Jem Aswad
© Provided by Variety

Halsey

“Hopeless Fountain Kingdom”

(Astralwerks/Capitol)

If you’re looking for a young artist to stake your hopes on in 2017, you could do a lot worse than 22-year-old Ashley Frangipane, a.k.a. Halsey: A brash, brave, badass artist who talks tough, believes fiercely in herself and turned attributes that in less-enlightened eras would have been detriments (she’s biracial, bisexual and bipolar) into strengths. Her rise was rapid and genuine: “Ghost,” posted on SoundCloud in 2014, took off and quickly led to her deal with Astralwerks — and in 2015 she released “The New Americana,” an anthem for whatever we’re calling her generation (“High on legal marijuana / Raised on Biggie and Nirvana”). And anyone who’s met her knows that it’s safe to assume a pretty small percentage of her persona is an act.

While her debut full-length, “Badlands,” was a solid statement of intent, recorded with relatively unknown collaborators, this one, a rather self-conscious move toward Maturity-with-a-capital-M, swings for the fences. Collaborators include The Weeknd, Sia, Migos’ Quavo, Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui, and producer/co-writers Greg Kurstin (Adele, Katy Perry), Benny Blanco (Maroon 5, Rihanna), Lido (Chance the Rapper, Banks), Ricky Reed (Fifth Harmony, Twenty One Pilots, Meghan Trainor) and EDM titan Cashmere Cat. It’s got ballads, love songs, breakup songs, a couple of midtempo dance tracks and even one that samples an old-school R&B chestnut by Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis Jr. Perhaps most poignantly, it’s got a breakup-with-girlfriend duet with Fifth Harmony’s Lauren Jauregui that has zero gender ambiguity (the first line is “She doesn’t kiss me on the mouth anymore”) and is a bold if slightly calculated statement from two openly bisexual women.

And for the most part, “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” works: Musically and conceptually it’s a big step forward from the relatively monochromatic sound of her debut, and it’s very much her album despite the heavy company she’s kept. While it opens with a spoken-word piece that finds her sounding every bit of her 22 years, she’s also developed her ability to encapsulate very relatable moments in a few words (“I can sometimes treat the people that I love like jewelry … I didn’t mean to try you on / But I still know your birthday and your mother’s favorite song”).

Occasionally her fiery, forceful personality does get submerged by her collaborators or influences: There are strong whiffs of Rihanna throughout, and where The Weeknd tag-team “Close My Eyes” sounds like a true collaboration, “Devil in Me” is so unmistakably a Sia co-write that you actually wonder if the Halsey album ended and your streaming service automatically started playing a Sia song.

But those are just two moments. And while there’s no club banger, Chainsmokers collaboration or genetically engineered play for Top 40 radio, “Hopeless Fountain Kingdom” serves the dual purpose of bringing Halsey to a wider audience while still allowing her to follow her own star.

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