I DON’T BLAME YOU if you expected Gwen Stefani’s third album, This Is What The Truth Feels Like, to be her best. Stefani’s first two solo albums, released in the mid-2000s, felt like fantastic examples of pop’s post-modern potential. Here was a ‘90s ska-punk singer in her mid-thirties sampling Fiddler on the Roof and The Sound Of Music while cribbing an aesthetic from hip-hop, Harajuku, and film noir. Both albums were pretty messy, and Stefani didn’t really have a coherent direction as a solo artist yet, but one felt that with a bit of time and a prudent editor, she could pull off a solid-to-groundbreaking avant-pop album. Cut to 2016. Pop is weirder than it’s been since Timbaland’s turn-of-the-millennium reign and more respected than it’s been in perhaps its entire existence. And Gwen Stefani’s grand return, the supposed payoff to a promising career that never quite flared into full overdrive, makes Hilary Duff sound like fucking Missy Elliott.
It’s pretty easy to understand why This Is What The Truth Feels Like is such a monumental failure. For one, she’d scrapped the album numerous times amid tight deadlines. Secondly, her label advised her against writing “personal” songs despite the fact that her thirteen-year marriage had just fallen apart. Most importantly, nobody else involved in the making of this album seems to have had any faith in Stefani whatsoever. This is third-rate material, the kind of four-chord fluff that’s designed to be as successful as possible while lacking anything resembling personality. It’s low-risk, low-reward pop, the sort found not on grand comebacks but on contractual-obligation filler.
None of this is Stefani’s fault. In fact, what makes This Is What The Truth Feels Like such a disheartening listen is how obviously and completely her vision has been compromised. I want to hear the album Stefani would have made had she followed her heart. But the disrespect her producers, writers, and label bosses have shown her makes what would otherwise be a perfectly mediocre album feel like carnage. It’s obvious Stefani doesn’t want to sing these songs. Her vocals are eerily stiff and lack passion throughout, even when she should sound like she’s having a blast. Listen to the rapping on “Red Flag”, which is supposed to sound “sassy” but instead ends up sounding like the world’s squarest suburban mom fake-rapping at her kids to deter them from going to an Eminem show. It’s no wonder that “Used To Love You”, a personal song written in defiance of her label, not only towers over the rest of the album in quality but features the best vocal performance on the record.
There’s nothing even remotely inventive here. The main stylistic experiment here is a glut of trap-influenced beats, which is pretty low on the list of biggest risks a pop star can take in 2016, somewhere between having a Drake feature and hiring Max Martin. But then someone decided to call up Fetty Wap to feature on “Asking 4 It”. It’s tragic how completely he upstages Stefani by doing exactly what he did for an hour on his debut last year, and how much emotion he conveys in spite of saying maybe two or three comprehensible words during his entire verse. It’s even more ironic given that Fetty Wap made it to the Top 10 no less than four times with songs he made in his bedroom in Paterson, N.J. with almost no expectation of blowing up. Meanwhile, This Is What The Truth Feels Like drips with the blood, sweat, and tears of dozens of label goons—not to mention those of Stefani herself—and it’ll probably be the lowest-seller of her career. D