Kesha started this decade as one of pop’s brightest stars. Though initially signed as a songwriter, she parlayed her guest vocal on Flo Rida’s 2009 hit, “Right Round,” into her own music career, launching her debut single, “Tik Tok” later that same year. The Auto-Tuned, half-rapped/half-sung vocal and her trashy, poor-man’s-Lady-Gaga aesthetic polarized critics, but the song was a runaway smash, sailing to #1 for nine weeks and kick-starting an impressive run of hit singles.
Then, of course, came Kesha’s claims of sexual assault and battery against her producer, Lukas “Dr. Luke” Gottwald. Gottwald denied the allegations, hitting back with a defamation countersuit, and the resultant legal brouhaha sidelined Kesha’s once-blossoming career. In 2016, a New York judge dismissed all of her claims—keeping her chained to Gottwald’s contract—though near-unanimous support from A-listers like Adele, Kelly Clarkson, and Taylor Swift granted her victory in the court of public opinion.
Kesha returns under these dramatic circumstances with “Praying,” the lead single from Rainbow, her first album in five years. The song’s simple piano introduction immediately differentiates it from the party anthems that built her career; “Your Love is My Drug” this most certainly is not. Against this stark production, Kesha details the struggle of surviving—and being strengthened by—a tormentor (obviously Gottwald). Despite one understandably bitter lyric—“when I’m finished, they won’t even know your name”—the song stands as a testament to empowerment and even forgiveness, as she sings, “I hope you find your peace, falling on your knees.” Eventually the piano bleeds into a gospel-organ, weepy strings, and a big, stomping drumbeat to match the rawest, most righteous vocal of her career. And I dare the most cynical of hearts not to tear up when she hits that high note after musing, “some things, only God can forgive.”
The stunning music video also perfectly showcases her recent struggles. It starts with Kesha asking, “Am I dead? Or is this one of those dreams?” as pig-masked, suited men hover over her casket. In between symbolic black and white images of the singer adrift at open sea upon a raft, she successfully escapes her piggy antagonists through a thrilling Technicolor, desert trash-scape dash. The heroic, cathartic video concludes with the words “the beginning” announcing Kesha’s rebirth.
“Praying” is a perfect, rise-from-the-ashes reinvention. Stripped of Auto-Tune, shorn of the ironic “$” that once stylized her name, and baptized by the fires of her legal trials, the real Kesha Sebert finally shines. It’s a glorious, triumphant return, and I cannot wait to hear what she does next.