Usually, the cult following comes before the breakout single. But that wasn’t how things worked for Carly Rae Jepsen, whose 2015 masterpiece EMOTION turned her success inside out. Four years earlier, her Billboard Hot 100-topper “Call Me Maybe” made her a household name, and the album it appeared on a year later, Kiss, sold over a million copies worldwide. It looked as if Jepsen was on track to secure a place in the pop pantheon alongside Taylor Swift and Adele, but when it took three years for a follow-up to materialize, she was at risk of being labeled a one-hit-wonder. When EMOTION (stylized as E•MO•TION) arrived on August 21, 2015, it not only brought Jepsen critical adoration, but a new, loyal audience.
Despite Kiss’ success, Jepsen seemed to recognize that her time in the limelight might be limited. Three more singles had been released from the album, and “Call Me Maybe” outperformed all of them. Feeling pressured by her own hit – and a bit frustrated with her lack of creative control on Kiss – Jepsen took some time off, spending a few months on Broadway in the title role of Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella. She immersed herself in the sound of 1980s icons like Prince and Madonna as well as contemporary pop artists like Solange and Sky Ferreira. She took her time, vowing to come back when she figured out not just what she wanted to say with her songs, but how she wanted to say it.
Jepsen went to work assembling a dream team of songwriters and producers, starting with Devonté Hynes (also known as Blood Orange) and Ariel Rechtshaid, as well as former Vampire Weekend member Rostam Batmanglij – all prominent indie artists who she admired. But she also sought out more mainstream names like Sia and super-producer Greg Kurstin. She even spent a month in Sweden working with some of the country’s finest pop producers: Mattman & Robin, Rami Yacoub, Carl Falk, Shellback, and Peter Svensson. In the end, Jepsen and her collaborators wrote a staggering 250 songs, whittling that down to just 12 for the final tracklisting. (Five more were added on as bonus tracks, and another eight outtakes were released a year later as EMOTION: Side B.)
Brimming with color and character
Considering the large team who were involved in the making of EMOTION and how many songs were written for it, it would’ve been understandable if the finished product had felt overdone. But EMOTION is an artistic triumph in every imaginable way, brimming with color and character. The album strikes the perfect balance of diversity and cohesiveness in its sound, even as it attempts a new style (and a new cast of collaborators) on seemingly every song. EMOTION opens with the ¬explosive power ballad “Run Away With Me,” as the chorus bursts forth on the back of a massive drum track and an equally massive synthesizer pulse – and, crucially, a majestic saxophone riff.
The stunning track “All That,” appropriately bears the tart bass and twinkling synths of a Blood Orange song. While on “Your Type” and “Warm Blood,” Jepsen demonstrates just how capably she can handle the more modern brash pop sounds that Sky Ferreira and Charli XCX were playing with at the time.
At the center of it all is Jepsen herself, whose personality never gets lost in the mix. Rather than the unflappable cool of 1989-era Taylor Swift or the larger-than-life drama of Adele, the Jepsen we hear on EMOTION is relatable and vulnerable. She knows the rush of falling in love is worth the pain of falling out of it, and that no matter how many times she gets her heart broken, she’ll always put it back together one more time. Jepsen’s lyrics are vivid and evocative: “I’ll find your lips in the streetlights,” she sings on “Run Away With Me.” “I am growing ten feet, ten feet tall / In your head and I won’t stop,” on the title track.
EMOTION’s lead single “I Really Like You” didn’t quite reach the same heights as her previous smash, but on its own, it’s a sticky piece of bubblegum pop that’s as effortlessly catchy as “Call Me Maybe.” But once the album was released, something fascinating happened: EMOTION, and Jepsen, found a new audience. Indie music fans skeptical of mainstream pop recognized the care and craft that went into these songs, and the sincerity of Jepsen herself, and were won over.
It cropped up on tons of “Best Of” 2010s lists and was heavily embraced by the LGBTQ community. And, to some, the record’s commercial underperformance actually endeared it to her new fans. While it was championed by a more niche audience, EMOTION is very much a universal record. Carly Rae Jepsen made it for everyone. Five years and counting, the album remains a powerful reminder of what pop music can do and how it can speak to the things we hesitate to say.