Album Review: Rebecca Black – ‘Let Her Burn’

The albatross of infamy has loomed heavy over Rebecca Black since middle school. When “Friday” went viral for all the wrong reasons 12 years ago, the public found it fitting to treat her almost as if she were Lewinsky. In reality, she was simply the 13-year-old face and mouthpiece for a D-list attempt at Disney teen pop, no more, no less. Black, by her admittance, didn’t know how to sing back then, but no amount or quality of vocal training would’ve saved that song. That’s not on her, and even if it were, as a culture, we love to make a mountain out of a molehill. Every person on this godforsaken rock has the right to drop a shit track, and each of us has the potential to improve: to work hard and suck a little less the next day.

Black has taken this to heart: when there was enough misplaced bullying to force her to transfer schools, it would’ve made all the sense in the world to give up, disappear, and switch focus. On the other hand, it would’ve been easy to make a quick buck off of a “Friday” late-night tour fueled by mean-spirited hate-listening and then vanish. This is, to an extent, what seemed to happen. A handful of rough—but unremarkably so—singles followed before 2013 saw an attempt to re-capture the ‘magic’ of “Friday” with “Saturday.” Then she went quiet for a while and got that vocal training. By 2016, she was still far from discovering her identity as an artist, but she’d developed the basic skills required to cut a serviceable pop record. When stacking “The Great Divide” and 2017’s RE / BL EP against the work of other teen pop songstresses? Let’s say it was on par with anything you’d hear from Demi Lovato.

While less informed parties might point to her cheeky reclamation of “Friday” in 2021 courtesy of a hyper-pop remix produced by 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady as a relaunch of her career, she continued to release something every year since 2016, popped up on the short-lived singing competition The Four in 2018, and started to come into her own in 2019. “Anyway,” “Do You?” and “Sweetheart” signified a potential to reach genuine pop stardom. 2020 and 2021 saw her establish an affiliation with the modern hyper-pop scene through collaborations with Dorian Electra and Slayyyter, and a solid EP in Rebecca Black Was Here. And now we’ve finally arrived at Let Her Burn, Black’s debut album, released 12 years almost to the day after “Friday.”

The biggest trap you can fall into when listening to Let Her Burn is expecting a hyper-pop album. Micah Jasper, the executive producer, is a Rebecca Black guy through and through: while he worked “Cowboys” for Slayyyter, the vast majority of his credits are with Black. Jasper’s hand is on seven of these ten tracks, and he stands as the closest thing to a defining voice in production. Stint, who produces on opening pair “Erase You” and “Destroy Me,” is best known for his work with Carly Rae Jepsen, Kesha, and, you guessed it, Demi Lovato. This is a capital-P Pop record, informed by but rarely beholden to hyper-pop. Those looking for a 1000 gecs or My Agenda have ordered the chicken while expecting beef. Taking this into consideration, the title of Let Her Burn reads like a half-truth: with Black seemingly less interested in reducing the awkward, starry-eyed girl of the past to ash and more interested in breaking her down to be rebuilt.

And quite the rebuild it is. Diversity is perhaps the greatest strength of Let Her Burn, but if there’s an overall thesis statement, it’d be “Destroy Me.” Built around an oscillating guitar loop and propelled forward by a frenetic drumbeat, Black looks to anchor herself amid chaos. “God, am I just a loser? / I bet that’s what they always say / Man, everybody’s cooler / And the compliments, they seem so fake,” she sings in acknowledgment of shot confidence and a certain degree of impostor syndrome. While Black’s music has been received far more positively in recent years, her past puts everything into question: Do people think she’s good now, or just good compared to where she started? Is her reinvention as an independent alt-pop artist seen as earnest by fans and peers, or is everyone snickering behind a veil of post-ironic appreciation? It’s a classic slice of angsty pop punk, but the casing is electro-metal: equal parts dense and jittery before opening up into a spacious coda, as if accepting that there’s little to be done. The opinions of others will ultimately always be out of her control; should they wish to “destroy her,” she invites them to try.

Lead single “Crumbs,” meanwhile, is giving “it’s Britney, bitch” energy, updating the mid-aughts “good girl gone bad” style with smatterings of modern underground electropop techniques. More specifically, it thematically echoes “Toxic,” detailing a similar addiction to another person. It’s a bass-heavy, horny club joint, BDSM pop complete with sexy whispers of dripping wax and talk of getting off on getting hurt. At times, the tonality of the synthesizers—frigid and dissonant—will likely bring to mind the work of SOPHIE, but Matias Mora’s implementation is notably more restrained (Autechre is perhaps a more accurate reference). “Doe Eyed,” the only track I’d feel comfortable calling hyper-pop, sees Black lock into a breathy falsetto, firing off shells of modulated runs over a crystalline droplet synth trap beat. Much brighter and cutesier, but similarly hyper-sexed (“I’m tongue-tied, but I wanna fuck you ’til / The sunrise”), it’s the yang to the thirsty yin of “Crumbs.” Some might turn a side-eye to the bodysuits and pretzel braids, but owning your sexuality should not be discredited as a powerful form of self-affirmation—e­­specially when the version of you that occupies most peoples’ minds is as a child singing about weekdays, and doubly so when you’re queer and your sexuality is its own tiny, incidental rebellion.

The back half of Let Her Burn is decidedly more tender, primarily settling into ballads and bouncy, retro synthpop throwbacks, but it still manages to mix things up in spots. “Sick to My Stomach” is a cheesy but equally charming mope over an ex-girlfriend. “What Am I Gonna Do With You” is the sort of slinking, muted soul you might hear from Billie Eilish, but Ceci Gomez and Kevin Hissink blow it up into a grinding arena anthem. “Cry Hard Enough” opens with haunting, digitized echoes before giving way to an ambiance Black’s vocals soar out from before morphing into an infidelity-centered hip-house track. And “Look At You,” perhaps the crown jewel of the B-side, is new wave with a bit of a heartland kick. Fuck me if there isn’t a bit of the Boss in the “Oh, and I can feel the vultures circling / They’re hungry for the blood of a beautiful thing” section.

As “Performer” closes out a tight 30 minutes, Black seems to admit to the double-edged sword of her approach. “Multiple versions / Of the same person / All of them hurting / Don’t think the performance is working,” she sings, calling back to the identity issues that set the tone earlier. There’s a sense that Black still wonders whether there can earnestly be more than one self: whether the new her(s) can coexist with her past and whether she even has a choice in the matter. As much as the vulnerability is appreciated, it does compositionally spin its wheels, never reaching the moment of catharsis such a statement begs. It does get bigger but still finds Black stuck in reiteration.

If the question is whether Rebecca Black’s debut album is a modern classic destined to redefine the pop zeitgeist, the answer is: I’m not a prophet, but probably no. There are a couple half-baked tracks, and she still has plenty of room to further solidify her understanding of who she is as an artist. That’s quite the standard though. The better, more reasonable questions are: does Rebecca Black deserve to be taken seriously, is Let Her Burn another example of progression, is it worth being proud of, and—most importantly—is it an enjoyable listen? Yeah, to all of those. And if you’ve been paying attention, this shouldn’t be the least bit surprising. The documentation exists, and it goes back years. This isn’t some out-of-nowhere co-opt of a style, some hollow, sudden re-brand: Black’s maturation is earned. Let Her Burn is just the latest exhibit.

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