21st Century Music: Lily Allen
21st Century Music playlists and profiles focus on artists that have released their music since 2000. These highlight more recent acts that continue the sound and spirit of the older artists that are the focus of Ceremony. Click on the streaming service of your choice below to listen to the playlist as you read along.
Lily Allen may be an unlikely choice to profile for Ceremony, but she is an interesting case study of the 21st Century Artist. As she is set to visit Toronto this week I thought it would a good time to look back on her career. She started as an original, fun, engaging singer but her music has moved into the purely electronic, auto-tuned, hip hop music that now dominates current music, and for this music fan it’s been an unfortunate turn. What’s interesting too, is that her success has also diminished with this change, suggesting to me she had more fans of her original style than she’s found swimming in the vast ocean of current R&B and hip hop.
Born in London, daughter of comedian Keith Allen and film producer Alison Owen, she grew up with an interesting cultural mix as her family lived in public housing after her parents split when she was four, but was also exposed to celebrities as her mother dated comedian Harry Enfield and Lily was also close to Clash legend, Joe Strummer. She bounced from school to school, often being expelled for not following the rules, but along the way was exposed to singing and performing in school performances and discovered her talent. Through her father’s connections she signed to London Records when she was seventeen, but that didn’t result in any releases. She then signed with Regal Recordings but was receiving little support in getting her music out, so she started issuing music through a MySpace site, providing demos of her songs and then two ‘mixtapes’ of music. Her online attention grew to the point that her label suddenly realized they had a burgeoning star on their hands.
Establishing success on her own terms, her first album in 2006 came through her direct creative control, and the album had a varied, anything goes style to it, drawing heavily on ska/reggae dubs and mixed vocals of raps and melodic singing. Alright, Still came to my attention after she performed her first two singles, “Smile” and “LDN,” on Saturday Night Live. Her ‘60s style fashion mixed with infectious, attitude-filled music was an intriguing and attractive package. I listened to her cd more than any other at the time, unable to get enough of her accented vocals, catchy beats, and reggae-tinted melodies. It didn’t sound like anything else around. Deeper variations of the album’s sounds could be heard on some B-sides, including the fantastic, “Nan, You’re a Window Shopper.” Filled with stories of fights, profanity, and a lament for pot-smoking, video game playing brother, Alfie, the album reached #2 in the UK and #20 in the US, and “Smile” reached #1 in the UK while “LDN” also cracked the top ten.
She was one of many artists to contribute to the fantastic album of retro-dance songs on producer-DJ Mark Ronson’s 2007 album, Version. The song was a cover of The Kaiser Chief’s “Oh My God,” which Lily had done a version on one of her mixtapes. The re-worked version with Ronson cracked the top ten in the UK in 2007.
The next album, 2009’s “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” moved away from the reggae sounds and leaned more fully into the dance side of her sound. Still full of attitude and profanity, her energy still shone through even when smoothed over the electronic beats and synth melodies. Having courted controversy and been Brit tabloid fodder for her outspokenness, her ongoing prolific drinking (a big source of her troubled teen school history), and a 2007 arrest for assaulting a photographer, her infamy brought greater attention and when combined with the purer pop sound of the new album, it made for a successful recipe and the album debuted at #1 in the UK, Australia and Canada. It peaked at #5 in the US. The lead single, “The Fear,” brought her a second #1 single in the UK. I was wary of her change in sound at this point but was won over by the hook-filled songs and her performance.
Struggling with her fame and certainly in response to getting married and having a child, Allen chose to take a break. There would be some guest appearances, such as on Pink’s 2012 song, “True Love,” as well as cover songs for compilations and fundraisers, such as a cover of Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know” (which went to #1 in the UK) it would be five years before the release of her next album. Titled Sheezus, a play on the Kanye album title, Yeezus. The music on this album took the electro-dance style of her last and pumped it fully into an over-produced, hip hop styled, highly auto-tuned composition. It was indistinguishable from the rest of the music treading in those waters, but on her reputation and I assume a good portion of her fanbase being open to that music the album went to #1 in the UK and #12 in the US. Two singles reached the top ten in the UK. For me, I realized Lily was moving in a direction that had no appeal to me and I stopped following her career.
She comes to Toronto promoting her new album, No Shame, an album that still is largely an electronic, R&B and hip hop album, but thankfully dials it down on the auto-tune and lets her real voice shine through. “Family Man” is actually a lovely blues styled song. But still there’s nothing here that compares, quality wise, to the music of her first two albums. While I don’t expect her to stay in one place, the inventiveness and crude charm of her early music has been lost. If she were bringing this music to a label as an unknown today, she wouldn’t have to fight them on it as it’s already what they’re seeking. To date, the album doesn’t look like it’s going to do as well as any of her past LPs.
I won’t be seeing her show this week, though part of me feels the draw in hope that the Lily Allen of ten years ago will come through. I saw her in concert in 2009 and I’ll prefer to keep the memory of her performances of those first two albums intact. She is also promoting a new autobiography, My Thoughts Exactly, which should be an interesting read given her life and all its trials and tribulations, which outside of her upbringing and music career has also gone through a miscarriage, postpartum depression, and a divorce. So if you only know her as a contemporary pop artist, discover the joy of her first two albums and the creative output of a less subdued, brash young artist.
The Playlist (song \ album (year))
Smile \ Alright Still (2006)
LDN \ Alright Still (2006)
Take What You Take \ Alright Still (2006)
Friend of Mine \ Alright Still (2006)
Nan, You’re A Window Shopper \ B-side, “LDN” (2006)
U Killed It \ B-side, “Littlest Things” (2006)
Oh My God w/ Mark Ronson \ Version (2007)
Everyone’s at It \ It’s Not Me, It’s You (2009)
The Fear \ It’s Not Me, It’s You (2009)
Him \ It’s Not Me, It’s You (2009)
Who’d Have Known \ It’s Not Me, It’s You (2009)
Life for Me \ Sheezus (2014)
Family Man \ No Shame (2018)