Between reality TV ubiquity, Broadway fame, and queer viral stardom, Todrick Hall is at home in the spotlight like few others. Now on his fifth studio album, Hall is eager to make a name for himself as a dancepop icon as well, in his own words, “to get back to good traditional music, no gimmicks, no smoke and mirrors, just great music, beats and rhythms.”
With that confidence and clarity of purpose behind him, Algorhythm (★★☆☆☆) represents an attempt to take his music to the next level, albeit with uneven results.
Hall has billed Algorhythm as something of an homage to the ’80s, although “infused” with ’80s sounds and elements rather than a lazy copy-paste.
The album begins with “Dance Forever,” a synthpop banger that delivers nicely on that promise.
It’s very danceable and very Todrick with its high-energy beat ready-made for a high-intensity workout playlist, with a captivating ’80s shimmer layered over it. Hall also flexes the higher ends of his vocal range for Prince-like effect, an interesting innovation that he brings out again a few more times throughout the album.
“Dance Forever” turns out to be a bit of an outlier as the album progresses. Despite the sound of the ’80s being cited as a major influence, those sounds actually come across somewhat muted throughout, and even feel absent altogether on many of the songs. When they do come to the forefront, they are used to great effect, such as the flashing synths and key change on “Higher” and the breakdowns in “Call You.”
Where Algorhythm is most indebted to the ’80s is “Pre-Madonna,” a track that is not so much indebted to the sound of the era as it is a tribute to vogue and ballroom culture as it was before Madonna popularized it with “Vogue.”
The accompanying music video is probably the single most impressive thing to come out of the album. Filmed earlier this year in Kyiv, Ukraine, Todrick shares the spotlight with some impressive dancers in paying homage to a scene dear to his heart, complete with deliciously garish costumes and Hall in genderfuck drag that, combined, make for a visually stunning augmentation to a fun dance track.
Those high-energy pure dancepop moments cover for some of the clunkier songwriting. A certain amount of cheesiness is part of Hall’s brand and even lends his music some charm in the right circumstances, but on less impressive tracks the unwieldy lyrics end up feeling distracting.
One song that especially suffers from this is the second single, “Breath,” a standard, serviceable pop ballad featuring belted-out lyrics and a hook that soars right about where it is supposed to.
While it carries some of the emotional punch of the R&B ballads it is inspired by, it is a less impressive outing than the other singles and, as a result, its lyrics about pining for a self-consciously “toxic as hell” relationship stand out and are more glaringly uncomfortable as a result.
An odd feature of Algorhythm is that the unabashed confidence that has worked so well for Hall in the past actually works against the album by coming off as empty bravado. References to an extraordinarily narrow range of gay excellence and repeated exhortations to “strut” and “pose” lead “Gay Excellence” to fall a bit flat as the pride anthem it seems to have been intended to be.
The swaggering confidence Hall has been able to channel pretty successfully elsewhere rings a bit hollow and yields mixed results right out of the gate, with the intro’s reference to “all my haters who made a warrior fight a little more” coming off as a bit precious. He does eventually nail the right amount of swagger on “Impressed,” a high-energy bop that gets a big boost from Betty Who.
Despite Hall’s outward clarity of purpose, Algorhythm seems less sure of exactly what it wants to be. His own statements about the album cite the ’80s, while the title and promotional art suggest a cyberpunk, retro-futurist glamour. Together they make for strange packaging for what is really a fairly standard dance pop record that only barely suggests either of those things.
Hall’s desire to move away from the kitsch and gimmicks that have characterized his better-known work is admirable, but the relative strength of his last work, Femuline, seem to indicate that his strengths don’t lie in schlock value.
Whether it is pride-themed dance music, or gay takes on pop culture artifacts, he is at his best when he has something to focus his energy and attention on. Algorhythm lacks that focus and ultimately suffers for it, despite the raw talent behind it.
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