“You’ve been calling my bluff on all my usual tricks / So here’s the truth from my red lips,” Taylor Swift raps on “End Game,” the second track of her killer album “reputation.” Of course, Swift’s “truth” can be somewhat ambiguous (as with anyone who shares their life stories with a scrutinizing public). But on “reputation,” Swift admits to telling the occasional lie, helping to make it her most candid album to date. Add it to the endless list of fascinating Swiftian paradoxes.
Speaking of lies, remember when the Kardashian-Wests tried to out Swift as a liar, and the world declared her a snake? Taylor Swift does. She’s probably quite pleased with the debacle, since she’s transformed those snake emojis into a “reputation”-era symbol and made millions off of them. But “reputation” has little to do with celebrity feuds. As always, everyone else is a prop to tell a story in which Swift is the star. After all, Tay is most interested in herself, and she knows critics and fans are, too. If there is a second character, it’s “they” or “everyone,” who’s watching, judging and poised to attack Swift’s every move. “Their” presence is subtle, but the more you listen, the more menacing it becomes. Eventually it’s enough to give you a small, poignant, dose of Swift’s paranoia.
Six albums in, Swift’s impeccable crafts(wo) manship is stronger than ever. “reputation” brims with catchy and addictive hooks, intimate details that any other songwriter would deem too mundane—or too personal—to feature in a song, larger-than-life choruses, plot twist bridges, intricate production, Oscar-worthy vocal dramatics, Swift’s obsessive attention to detail and a strategic song order that tells a gripping story. Swift’s dedication to the quality of her product shines through, as well as her passion for album crafting; Tay had fun crafting this epic project, and it shows, especially in the album’s wackiest and riskiest moments.
“…Ready For It?” is the worst song to kick off an incredible album since, well, Tay launched “1989” with “Welcome to New York.” Is the bridge even a bridge? Did Tay rip it from “The Hunger Games”? But “…Ready For It?” effectively heralds the “reputation” era, from the suggestive lyrics to introducing Taylor as a transgressor.
In the album’s first half, Taylor adds a new persona to her already intriguing, deca-faceted character: the rebellious, mischievous, vengeful instigator. She’s breaking hearts for sport, toying with older guys and narcissists and hanging out in bars. When Tay acts bad, she sadistically snarls “I’d do it over and over and over again if I could.” Whether it’s a satirical play on her tabloid reputation, a genuine reflection of her character or a delicious combination of both Swift leaves up to interpretation. Goodbye, self-righteousness and breakup anthems. Hello, self-deprecation and love songs.
Note Swift’s newfound obsession with alcohol, present on nine of the 15 tracks. Tay claims she was “feeling so Gatsby for that whole year,” but she seems more enthusiastic about a bottle of whiskey as a “reputation” era symbol than she does about actually sipping from it. Which is so Taylor Swift.
Halfway through “reputation,” the narrative shifts slightly (as do Swift’s production and songwriting partners in crime, from Max Martin and Shellback, to predominately Jack Antonoff). Part two is where the album goes from interesting to unforgettable. Swift remains a drinker, a thief and a cheater, but she develops a conscience, and she falls in love. For real this time. This isn’t the fairy tale princess romance of albums past, but instead a long-term, adult relationship.
Tay meets the guy in “Gorgeous,” a keenly self-aware parody of her early teenage crush songs which demonstrates Swift’s genius at getting you on her side, even when she’s in the wrong. Everything about “Gorgeous” is perfect, from Tay’s shout out to her cats, to how she melodramatically declares that her life is ruined and she’ll drown and die, which is followed by an upbeat “ding!” That’s our girl, caring long enough to craft an incredible couplet, but getting right over it because she’s too darn resilient, and CEOs of their own multi-billion dollar companies just don’t have the time.
Most of the tracks on the latter half of the album are knockouts. Besides the epic rap pre-chorus of “King of My Heart” (I’ll salute you anytime, Queen Tay), I like the part where she and her boyfriend are on a roof, drinking beer out of plastic cups. They don’t care that it’s not the classiest for two stars because they fancy each other more than fancy stuff. And all at once, that’s enough.
Full appreciation of “Dress” necessitates an understanding of Swift’s enduring obsession with dresses, which have symbolized her vulnerability and girlish innocence. But in “Dress,” Swift insists “Only bought this dress so you could take it off” as she spills wine in a bathtub with shaking hands. This flawlessly produced slow jam is full of surprises, particularly the plot twist—Swift is not singing about a drunken hookup, but instead a committed relationship and 3:01-3:03 (I won’t spoil it).
Tay finally scolds Kanye in the third to last song. This one packs a particularly powerful punch because Swift is fun when she’s mad and self-righteous—two emotions lacking in “reputation,” compared to her other albums. Swift has enjoyed infantilizing him since “Innocent” (2010). This time, she passive-aggressively condescends, “This is why we can’t have nice things, darling / Because you break them / I had to take them away.” Tay’s cackle? Downright evil. Yeezy better watch out.
The story concludes with “New Year’s Day,” where Swift cleans up that drunken party she threw on “reputation.” As her boyfriend helps collect empty bottles, Tay promises, “I will hold onto you.” And though she’s now alluded to lying, I believe her. There’s no high scale production, just Swift’s soft voice and a piano. It could be a different artist than the sadistic songwriter of the beginning.
In a sense, “reputation” is what Swift has been doing all along: crafting a meticulous, self-aware narrative that reflects the previous years of her life and responds to the public’s view of her, carefully attempting to shape that perception. But this story is more self-effacing, genuinely romantic, witty, and honest than ever before.