The trick of Miley Cyrus is that we’re not talking about anybody but Miley Cyrus right now. Her VMA performance with Robin Thicke, who dressed as Beetlejuice‘s Floridian pimp nephew, was maybe offensive, ill-conceived, not conceived, and a mess, but that’s more than I remember about Katy Perry‘s anodyne performance of “Roar” or Bruno Mars‘ serviceable take on “Gorilla.” Though Lady Gaga delivered a pitch-perfect, costume-morphing rendition of “Applause,” she mainly served up an affirmation of her own shtick. Miley gave us something more sinister: an all-new entity with a jiggling tongue and marionette pelvis who wanted to be called Miley Cyrus.
Since that time, she’s vaulted into a PR blitz which has included an SNL appearance, a radio-ready ballad called “Wrecking Ball,” Good Morning America, a ridiculous Terry Richardson photo spread, and an unexpected epistolary war with Sinead O’Connor. Just a month after we thought the Lady Gaga/Katy Perry duel would never end, a lone competitor eclipses them both and doesn’t look stupid when she uses hashtags on Twitter. Now that Miley’s new album Bangerz is in our hands, the question remains: Does she deserve this reign?
In all the discussion about Miley’s self-awareness and obnoxiousness, one underestimated point is that she’s been spicing up her image for the better part of a decade. She was pumping out fine, Red Bull-fueled singles like “7 Things” and “See You Again” (source of the immortal line, “My best friend Lesley says, ‘She’s just being Miley'”) in 2008, not to mention a bankable, adult-y ballad called “The Climb” that had to render P!nk and Taylor Swift insane with jealousy in 2009. Later that year, Miley went Coyote Ugly on an ice cream cart conveniently fitted with a pole at the Kids Choice Awards. She clearly didn’t hate that salvia bong furor in 2010, and she clearly meant every risque word of Bangerz‘s first single “We Can’t Stop” earlier this year. She didn’t just recklessly bombard Alan Thicke‘s son with her ass on national TV in August; she saved up to do it.
That’s why Bangerz is something of a surprising listen. Though Miley has made a ton of noise recently and some actual music too, earning seven Top 10 Billboard hits (including her first #1 “Wrecking Ball”), Bangerz feels like a debut. Its raw presentation makes you want to discount her previous catalog, including her so-so last album Can’t Be Tamed, much the way Jagged Little Pill recast a platinum Canadian artist named Alanis Morissette as a damning firestarter. Accordingly, Miley’s voice is now assured and clearly her own, and the sound of Bangerz is utterly of its time. The libidinous sway of “We Can’t Stop” smacks of Rihanna‘s robo-realness, “Wrecking Ball” is a longing ballad in the vein of So You Can Think You Can Dance contemporary schmaltz like “Jar of Hearts” but is nervier thanks to Miley’s great vocal, and the liner notes teem with producers du jour. Pharrell Williams is clocking you with a stampeding thump on “4X4″ (feat. Nelly!) and Rihanna/Lil Wayne veteran Michael Williams (known as Mike WiLL Made It) fits most other tracks with tough beats and a chill throb. That’s a perfect combo for Miley, who loves going hard but prefers to do it in a come-down haze.
Another surprise: The coolest thing about Bangerz is Miley’s vocal performance. The 20-year-old imp still has moments where she sounds like the spitfire bandit of “See You Again,” but every song on Bangerz from the dubstep riffs to the clangy kiss-off “FU” is imbued with a plaintive maturity, or at least a few minutes worth of reckoning. Miley tries to sidestep that quality during her woeful attempts at rap on “SMS (Bangerz)” (featuring TheBacklot’s non-fave Britney Spears) and “Do My Thang,” but it’s easy to dismiss those moments when remembering how she sounds like, say, E.G. Daily (the Rugrats voice actress and singer who is currently a contestant on The Voice) or a pleasantly raspy balladeer without an obvious contemporary on the current Billboard Hot 100. Haters may think she’s the second coming of Ashlee Simpson, but the opening track “Adore You” proves her pain is more electric and adult than “Piece of Me.” On “Maybe You’re Right,” Miley is righteously wronged. On “Wrecking Ball,” her vitriol spills over while staying inside a delicate lilt. Plus, through it all, she’s sort of gnarly in a Jane Child way? It all adds up.
Judging by the confluence of top producing talents on Bangerz, this album was bound to happen to somebody in 2013. We should be happy it landed on Miley: With her daftness and unerring vulnerability, she’s cool, strange, and — in her own way — innocuously fun enough to be the definitive 2013 album’s winking figurehead.
Related: VH1.com’s True Life Story of Miley Cyrus’ Tongue