Miley Cyrus surely doesn’t care that, thanks to her performance at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, it’s impossible to hear Bangerz and not think of twerking. Nearly everything about the record suggests — nay, screams out — that her main concern is that we forget about Hannah Montana. Her first album since abandoning that Disney franchise, Cyrus’s fourth solo disc is the latest of a long line of releases by former teen stars with an appetite for persona destruction. Like Britney, Christina, Bieber, Timberlake, George Michael and, yes, even the Beatles before her, Cyrus is redefining herself through a radical about-face.
“Hey baby, are you listening,” are Cyrus’s first words, as if she’s fully aware that most people are more interested in voicing their pro- or anti-Miley stance than in actually hearing her record. But there is music here, and some of it is quite good: A singular combo of dance tracks, melodramatic balladry and emphatically southern hip-hop, Bangerz packs a couple dozen songwriters, but her key studio collaborator is Mike WiLL Made It, a 24-year-old Atlanta producer who specializes in trap music, a once-underground genre initially focused on drug-dealing exploits. If there’s a sound more street than trap, a pop star hasn’t tried it.
MWMI doesn’t oversee every song, but trap’s extreme sub-bass lows and tinny snare highs nevertheless permeate Bangerz and help dramatize its drastic thematic mood swings. When she’s not owning the night, Cyrus is grieving lost love, and she does each with the subtlety of the wrecking ball she sings about. “I got two letters for you/ One of them’s F and the other one’s U,” she belts in “FU.”
As for her singing: She may no longer be a Montana, but Miley most definitely remains a Cyrus. Not even Taylor Swift twangs this much while leaning on EDM this hard. Miley may have never been a straight C&W crooner, but you can hear her Nashville heritage keening through, even on Pharrell’s neo-disco delight “#GETITRIGHT.” “4×4,” another Pharrell production, boasts both Nelly and the most extreme do-si-do/club fusion since Malcolm McLaren’s “Buffalo Gals.”
Much on Bangerz lacks finesse, and nothing hits its bulls-eye as forcefully as “We Can’t Stop,” an instant classic ostensibly about youthful resistance, yet one that’s fleshed out with a melodic sadness that suggests its implicit theme is compulsion: Its very title declares that Miley cannot stop; expecting her to be refined at this particular juncture is like asking a Dalmatian to remove its spots.