Tacked right onto the end of Feed the Beast, Kim Petras’ so-called debut album, is “Unholy,” the German-born pop singer’s collaboration with Sam Smith. Released last year as a single from Smith’s fourth album Gloria, the track quickly became a source of internet ire for its curiously family-friendly attempt at transgressive, sex-positive pop. It also quickly shot to No. 1 on the Hot 100, thereby becoming the track that finally, after six years of striving, pulled Petras from IYKYK fame into the mainstream.
As a business decision, it’s a savvy move: “Unholy” has over a billion streams on Spotify alone, and remains a staple of pop radio; it will likely, by sheer proximity, make Feed the Beast look like a huge success. As a creative decision, it’s questionable. For all its theatrical faux-transgression—and for all the theatrical performativity with which it was promoted—“Unholy” was genuinely eclectic, an earworm with Gregorian chants and diet-SOPHIE synths. It arrives after 14 songs that largely sound like Teenage Dream rejects, a painful reminder that to become the kind of magnetic, world-beating pop star that the 30-year-old Petras is supposedly such a keen student of, you have to take real risks. And for about 40 minutes, Petras does little more than play it safe.
Petras took the title of Feed the Beast from an executive at Republic, who advised her to keep churning out music for the label to market. It’s unclear if there is any irony there: This is, for the most part, high-octane, inoffensive dance-pop that will sound great in Sephora and adequately pad out the playlist at your nearest shipping container bar. But it’s more than a little depressing, conceptually: A great pop star might make a melodramatic Faustian bargain part of her art, inviting you to watch on Instagram Live as she sells her soul in hope of being the next Madonna. A lesser pop star might deliver a song like the title track—“Throw you my heart, like eat me please,” Petras sings—which is more like a slot machine to be rung again and again, in hope that the three dollar signs will eventually line up. On Feed The Beast, she is rarely doing anything other than pure recreation, her posture of self-awareness hiding music that has no real point of view.
Petras has been spending a long time trying to perfect her sound. This is her third full-length album, after 2019’s trend-hopping debut Clarity and Halloween-themed mixtape Turn Off the Light. (She also scrapped a whole record, Problématique, after the majority of it it was leaked online, and released last year’s Slut Pop EP that she said was intended to champion sex workers but only contained one line—“OnlyFans kind of shit”—about sex work). The enthusiasm and sheer love of pop history that Petras displayed on Clarity is replaced with a mercenary neutrality. Although songs like “King of Hearts,” a pummeling Eurodance stomper, or “Castle in the Sky,” another pummeling Eurodance stomper, might allude to urgency in their lyrics and music, they still feel totally anemic and bereft of passion. Petras is at her best on “Coconuts,” a winking, frothy disco-pop single about her boobs that went gay-Twitter-viral in 2021 and is included here. But the remarkable density of clichés on the rest of Feed the Beast just drags everything down: “You gon keep on playing till you go too far”; “When you touch my body, I hear the angels sing”; “Hold me tight for one more minute.” Petras has spent years proving that she is smarter than this kind of lowest-common-denominator pop. Though Petras has always dealt in purely mainstream sounds, she’s never sounded so listless.
Even “Sex Talk,” a synth-funk bridge between the aggressive ribaldry of Slut Pop and the starry-eyed positivity of an early banger like “Heart to Break,” feels uninspired: “I like sex talk/Can you make my bed rock?” she asks, her voice carrying all the enthusiasm of a 2 p.m. Grindr thread. Petras has a knack for transmuting simple, stupid turns of phrase into pop gold—“Before you break my heart/Can you hit it from the back?” she sings on “Hit It From the Back,” the album’s best track—but she seems to have lost this particular skill here.
If Feed the Beast had a more defined personality—fizzy and extravagant like Clarity, or dumb to the point of genius like Slut Pop—it might be worth mentioning that half its songs were co-written by the infamous Dr. Luke. But Feed the Beast doesn’t need such a wrinkle: It is unlistenable on its own merits, a torrent of pure mid. Why doesn’t it possess the same sparkle as Doja Cat’s “Kiss Me More” or Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream or Kesha’s Animal or, indeed, any of the other great songs he’s written with Petras over the past few years?
It’s hard to square Feed the Beast with the kind of musician Petras appears to be. Even on the songs she released as a teenager, such as the Timbaland-meets-nightcored-Beach-House oddity “Die For You,” she seemed hungry and brazen, going for broke in her avowed quest to be a pop star. Online and in interviews, she is funny and smart, clearly a master of the subtle irony that stan Twitter adores. But there is such a thing, perhaps, as wanting mainstream fame too much—so much so that you let all your edge get sanded away.
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