Hearing the phrase “debut release from a TikTok star” doesn’t often inspire confidence in what’s about to follow, but Bella Poarch, who posted a lip-syncing clip of herself in the summer of 2020 that remains TikTok’s most-viewed video to this day, has gone her own way for her debut EP, Dolls. Poarch’s debut single, the Danny Elfman-in-emoji flip-off “Build a Bitch,” laid the groundwork for the 25-year-old’s aesthetic; it combines insouciant, pop-culture-referencing lyrics with a lip-sync-ready chorus and kiddie-music detailing, and it drives home its point with a sneer before quickly moving on.
The six-song Dolls, which was produced largely by Poarch’s chief collaborator (and fellow TikTok alum) Sub Urban, is a fast-moving collection of darkly hued pop songs that deploy sonics seemingly borrowed from a nearby nursery while playing with tropes of bad boys and worse relationships. “Build a Bitch” uses the primary-color motifs of the mall chain Build-A-Bear and licensed characters like Bob the Builder and Barbie to take men’s expectations of young women to task; “I’m filled with flaws and attitude/So if you need perfect, I’m not built for you,” Poarch coos, leading into a manic choir singing “la-la-la” behind her. “Dolls,” which opens with weary “ha-ha’s” before skip-along beats take over, winks at the popular glam-goth fashion brand Dolls Kill — the offerings of which hew closely to Poarch’s on-record aesthetic — as it buoyantly details revenge on anyone who might cross Poarch’s path. “Villain” is a gleeful love-hate song (“I’ll be the villain tonight/I kinda like when you despise me after we fight,” Poarch wails) that feels ready-made for a musical-theater treatment — one of the defining ideals of TikTok pop, and one that Poarch clearly thrives in.
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The alt-pop doyenne Grimes gives Poarch her blessing on “No Man’s Land,” a vengeful cut that opens with Poarch, accompanied by a piano, singing of heartbreak in the figurative and literal sense, dreaming of a world where she goes on the warpath against all who have wronged her as the beat (co-produced by Sub Urban and Elie Rizk) gallops along. Grimes tosses off images of destruction — grenades, razor blades, “candle fires and crusade[s]” — in her gasped verse, which provides a sharp contrast to Poarch’s muscular yet winsome alto.
Dolls succeeds because of Poarch’s commitment to a unified aesthetic, as well as the economy she applies to her songwriting (the EP clocks in at just under 14 minutes). Dark pop can be a tough genre to nail — too much of either half of the equation can make the whole thing dip into an uncanny valley — but Poarch’s combination of minor-key menace and off-kilter yet upbeat music makes for a solid base for her already-burgeoning career.
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