Cher Lloyd: Sticks + Stones (Album Review)

In September of 2010, the world (well, the UK) watched as a jittery Worcestershire-born girl named Cher Lloyd strolled across the stage–suited in a a fitted black jacket and shredded white jeans–to audition for the X Factor. After a brief grilling by the judges regarding her name and age (“You look more!” Louis Walsh exclaimed after learning she was only 16 years old), Lloyd announced she’d be performing (Keri Hilson‘s cover of) Soulja Boy‘s “Turn My Swag On.”

And then she opened her mouth to sing.

The audition was electric: A mixture of vulnerable warbling and smooth-talking rap skills, Lloyd’s brilliantly crooned rendition of Soulja Boy’s song sent stunned ripples throughout the entire arena. The judges all stared, seemingly bewildered. When she finally finished, the crowd exploded into a long, uproarious cheer. Cher’s audition video almost immediately went viral, watched by millions worldwide fascinated by the young ‘swagga’-fied singer. As her soon-to-be mentor Cheryl Cole would happily proclaim following the audition: “You are right up my street!”

Even after all the incredible performances she’d deliver later on in the competition, it was exactly that first moment which would ultimately remain her most memorable, show-stopping performance of the season.

And so, she progressed onto the competition. Between her melodic vocal skills and ample on-stage cockiness, the swag-pop singer captivated (and sharply divided) X Factor viewers with her love-it-or-hate-it youthful brattitude. Cheryl Cole saw something. Will.I.Am saw something. And many, myself included, remained obsessed week after week.

Following her departure from the series (ultimately clocking in at fourth place behind soulful big belter Rebecca Ferguson, tween boy band One Direction and eventual ‘guitar-pop’ winner Matt Cardle), Lloyd was instantly signed with Simon Cowell‘s Sony Music imprint, Syco Music.

Cowell clearly saw Lloyd’s potential beyond her final X Factor performance, immediately thrusting her into the studio with dozens of drool-worthy A-list pop producers, including RedOne, Toby Gad, Max Martin and Shellback.

By mid-August of 2011, Lloyd released her debut The Runners-produced single: “Swagger Jagger”–an in-your-face hater anthem largely prompted by the backlash Lloyd received during (and after) her appearance on X Factor by detractors. “You can’t stop clickin ’bout me, writin’ ’bout me, tweeting ’bout me,” she taunts above the song’s dizzying beat–a noisy cross between a Black Eyed Peas-esque club banger and the mind-numbing irritation of a Crazy Frog ringtone. If Cher wasn’t enough of a divisive figure in pop culture already, she was now with “Swagger Jagger”–the very definition of a polarizing pop track.

And although the song thinly teetered between brilliance and club trash (or likely because of it), it worked: A week later, Lloyd secured her first #1 single in the UK.

A few months later, the singer returned to the scene with a refreshing new change in sound–or at least a slower BPM: “With Ur Love,” the RiRi-lite (if not ultimately safe) mid-tempo jam featuring silky-smooth pop crooner, Mike Posner. Perfectly timed for the back-to-school swoon-y season, the cutesy pop ditty brought home a second smash for the singer, landing at #4 on the UK Singles Chart.)

On November 7, a little over one year after stepping out onto the X Factor stage for the very first time, Lloyd released her debut record: Sticks + Stones, a 10-track collection of vibrant, jaunty electro-pop, hooky melodies, gritty dubstep influences and, of course, Lloyd’s signature brand of swag-pop.

From the very first second, it’s clear that Sticks + Stones is a distinctly ‘young’ album. After all, Cher Lloyd is only 18 years old (17 during most of the recording for the record) and the album smartly reflects thate-from the cheeky sing-song of “Swagger Jagger” and “Over The Moon,” to the silly studio ad-libbing at the end of “Want U Back” (“Do I sound like a helicopter? Brrrr!”) to the playful Gaga reference in “Playa Boi” (“He need to rock all the sickest brands and give me love, not a bad romance!”–all the more amusing given that both songs were crafted by RedOne.)

There’s no better representation of the album’s youthful flair as with album opener “Grow Up,” featuring a reliably amazing mile-a-minute verse by industry vet, Busta Rhymes. Alternating between deceptively sweet and sarcastic croonage (a la Alright, Still-era Lily Allen) and a ferocious flow (a la Nicki Minaj, growls and all), Cher merrily leads the charge against maturity on the manic mixture of reggae noises and pinball machine bleeps and bloops: “We ain’t ever gonna grow up, we just wanna get down/Show everybody who runs this town!”

“Want U Back”

Later on, Lloyd flaunts a little funny bone on the regret-filled “Want U Back.” Kicking off with a deliciously angry grunt that plays on loop (UHH!!!) the Shellback-produced track finds Lloyd ruing the day she ever stepped out on her man…who’s now being made all the happier by some other chick: “Remember all the things that you and I did first? And now you’re doing them with her?!” Lloyd sings incredulously on the bouncing electro-pop beat, dissing the chick’s jeans and denying all charges of jealousy in the process.

Sure, it borders on near stalker territory (just how do you know where they’re going ’round town, Cher?), but…oh, it’s just so endearing! “Want U Back” is one of the album’s catchiest, cutest moments–even if Lloyd’s gritting her teeth and clenching her fists with rage. If this isn’t a surefire candidate for Single #3…UHH!!!

“Playa Boi”–another strong single candidate–relies on a thick slice of late ’80’s/early ’90’s-encrusted synth-pop, along with an interpolation lifted directly from Neneh Cherry‘s international smash, “Buffalo Stance.” “No playa boi can win my love/It’s sweetness that I’m thinkin’ of,” Lloyd chants, adding an ever-so-slightly 21st century spin on the lyrics to Cherry’s 1988 classic. With its big, bossy chants (“Listen up! Turn it up!”) and funky fresh beats, “Playa Boi” serves up enough heat to have Paula Abdul fastening her wig (back in 1988, anyway.)

And while “Want U Back” and “Playa Boi” are two personal highlights, “Superhero” is likely the album’s single most genius moment in songcraft.

Produced by Jukebox (he of Willow Smith “Whip My Hair” fame) and co-penned by R&B-pop songwriting sensation Priscilla Renea (Rihanna, Cheryl Cole), the bouncy break-up story finds the young singer getting Marvel-minded above sharp stabs of strings and kicking drums while illustrating the story of a relationship gone wrong–comic book style: “Went to sleep a superhero and he woke up a villain, killing and killing my love/Oh, what happened?” Lloyd mourns.

“Superhero” isn’t just a catchy tune–it’s literally a non-stop assault of hooks and melodies. From the lyrics (“You said you could save me/I’m doing the saving”) to the live instrumentation to the wildly warbling hooks that Lloyd effortlessly nails (“I-I-I don’t wear no ti-i-ights!”), “Superhero” is truly a stunning victory for all parties involved.

Elsewhere, Lloyd takes the opportunity to wax autobiographical about her fast path to stardom: “When Simon told me I was trouble/All I said is ‘okay’/Now let me turn my swag on/And step up to the plate,” she raps during the opening of “Over The Moon.” Half gritty dubstep affair, half sing-songy ’40’s ditty that nearly brings Nicola Roberts‘ own debut to mind, the zany stormer is probably the best representation of Lloyd’s girly-gone-gangsta persona.

Yet of all her swagga-filled moments, “Dub On The Track” is by far her swaggiest moment yet.

After a meh version of the song originally leaked back in the summer, the song has since undergone a major facelift in its finished form. The newly polished–err, filthier track includes even more relentlessly grinding, winding dubstep synths and a fierce fist-pumper of a chant (“Work hard, party harder!”), as well as some cred-building assists by UK grime rappers Mic Righteous, Dot Rotten and Ghetts.

And while dubstep often has all the appeal of chewing on glass, Lloyd’s free-flowing melodies and rhymes keep the track mostly in check: “I’m hard to swallow, but a spoonful of sugar might make it go down more easily,” she sagely advises.

And while a bulk of the album is filled with bossy brags, heavy beats and sugary-sweet teenage dreamin’, it’s “Beautiful People”–the album’s devastating ballad co-produced by Max Martin and Shellback–that allows Lloyd to shine as a singer: “It’s beautiful people like you who get whatever they want/And it’s beautiful people like you who suck the life right out of my heart,” Lloyd sadly croons on top of the chilling piano melody and acoustic guitar strum, later joined by Carolina Liar.

As PopJustice rightfully pointed out, Lloyd’s fragility makes the track seem the most genuine–a little more of this kind of vulnerability and emotional honesty on the rest of the record would have been greatly appreciated.

Still, she’s excused for not wanting to dive too deep on her first go-around: This is Cher’s debut effort, and she’s made it clear that she’s (mostly) here to have fun. While the collection could have definitely benefited from at least another 2 or 3 songs, Sticks + Stones is still an impressive debut: It’s cute, it’s swagga-riffic, and it’s likely a stronger set than anyone would have probably anticipated from the young entertainer.

As with her appearance on X Factor–from her first earth-shattering audition to her tear-soaked take on Shakespears Sister‘s “Stay”–we should know better than to doubt the Almighty Lloyd.

After all, she’s the kind of girl to put dub on the track.

Sticks + Stones was released on November 7. (iTunes)

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