In the last five years, Rita Ora has seemingly been everywhere: in the tabloids, as a panelist on The Masked Singer, a coach on The Voice Australia, in a handful of film roles including a supporting stint in Pokémon Detective Pikachu and collaborating on a smattering of singles with artists like Kygo, David Guetta and Tiësto. So it’s almost hard to imagine that her last album, Phoenix, was released in 2018. Ora’s name has remained on everyone’s lips—she’s made sure of it.
Since the release of her 2012 debut Ora, the British singer-songwriter has been dominating the UK market, turning explosive singles like “How We Do (Party)” and “R.I.P. (2012), “I Will Never Let You Down” (2014) and “Let You Love Me,” and more into No. 1 hits. The release of Phoenix marked a self-assured career refresh for the singer who endured a legal battle with Roc Nation to be released from her contract. Earlier this year, she became one of the first-ever artists to receive a BRIT Billion Award.
Now, she’s seemingly never been more content in her personal life, as well. Last year, she tied the knot with Academy Award winning-director Taika Waititi, something that helped foster You & I, her new album and “diary of the last few years.” For the first time, she notably co-wrote her entire album. Sure, there are plenty of cathartic dance-floor bangers, but beneath the beat drops and brassy choruses, Ora confesses her struggles with self-worth, her fear of abandonment and the anxiety she grapples with while getting close to someone new.
Opening with the string-flanked, Euro-dance number “Don’t Think Twice,” Ora proves that getting personal for her isn’t going to mean a pivot to solely doing ballads. She follows the sweeping, Clean Bandit-inspired number up with the dark synth-pop “You Only Love Me,” where she pours out her insecurities about the beginning of a relationship (and includes a voice memo from Waititi). That sentiment continues on “Unfeel It,” which surfaces as a fizzy stream of consciousness about the inherent anxiety that comes with falling in love. “Baby how dare you mess up my mind / I’m freaking out, I’m freaking out, I’m freaking out,” she exclaims. Perhaps her riskiest tracks are the ebullient Fatboy Slim-flip “Praising You,” the ‘80s-inflected “That Girl,” a clapback toward the “party girl” label she’s endured and the cheeky “Girl in the Mirror,” which details her journey to self-love and evokes the energy of Christina Aguilera’s 1999 R&B-pop anthem “Genie in a Bottle.” There Ora is undeniably at her most fun.
By mid-album, Ora shakes off much of her crippling self-doubt. On the saccharine electro-dance track “Waiting For You,” Ora muses about the unexpected pleasure of finding love after watching her friends get hitched. The second half of the record sees Ora embracing more downtempo numbers. She sings earnestly of finding her person on a swelling rock ballad (“You & I”) and her years of people pleasing on a gritty ode to her mother (“Shape of Me”). The strings return on “Look At Me Now,” which highlights her soaring vocals and preaches how unflappable she’s become. “Throw your stones until I’m broken/ They won’t bring me down/ Even in my darkest moments/ I am happy now,” Ora belts. On the sparse stunner “Notting Hill” she reflects on the simplicity of growing up and her dreams of becoming a pop star. “Oh we used to do it all for the thrill/ Damn, I miss those nights just us in Notting Hill,” she recalls over a gospel-tinged beat.
While You & I delves into Ora’s personal experiences and emotional triumphs, it does so in broader strokes. Though those confessional moments give a bit more insight into the life of Ora— her immigration experience, marriage and struggle to self-actualize — where she truly delivers is when she leans into experimentation on her euphoric EDM-lite and dance-pop. numbers. Still, it can’t be denied that Ora has delivered a collection of stunning love songs.