(Photo Credit: Atlantic)

We all know Kelly Clarkson. Or, rather, her music. We have all jammed out to “Breakaway”, “Behind These Hazel Eyes”, “Since U Been Gone”, “My Life Would Suck Without You”, “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” and “Heartbeat Song”, among others (if you didn’t, um, who hurt you?) In fact, 12-year-old Jeffrey sang “I Do Not Hook Up” for his audition for the sixth grade musical (maybe a bit inappropriate at the time but the teachers gave me a solo, so I must’ve done something right…)

All of this to say, Kelly Clarkson is one of those artists who has made great pop songs, but even her biggest of fans must admit that they all started to sound the same after awhile. And there’s nothing wrong with that. She nailed every single one of those songs and clearly she was doing something right, because they were all largely successful. But I would not really have described myself as a huge fan of Clarkson’s: I love the hits, but that’s about it. She’s never been an artist who I have sought out all of her full albums, because a part of me always felt they all sounded the same after awhile, so I was good with the hits. Because the hits were hits for a reason. But then along came Meaning of Life, Clarkson’s new eighth studio album that dropped at the end of October.

When I heard the first single from her new album, “Love So Soft”, I was baffled. I’d only heard snippets and seen a clip from the music video, but I swore it sounded like Kelly Clarkson was singing a Rihanna song. And my next thought was, ugh, oh no, now Kelly Clarkson is trying to transition to mainstream dance-pop and/or electropop and it’s not going to work. But I could not have been more wrong. Literally, I was so wrong. I am living proof that first impressions are often wrong (and, also, I probably should have listened to the new song in its entirety because it’s nothing like a Rihanna song).

As it turns out, Clarkson fulfilled the terms of her joint contract between RCA Records and 19 Recordings in 2016, which she had received as the winner of the first season of American Idol in 2002. Thereafter, RCA was reportedly interested in resigning Clarkson to their label without 19’s involvement (19 Recordings has the exclusive rights to sign contestants of the Idols series, since it’s owned by Simon Fuller, the creator of the original Pop Idol). However, Clarkson was hesitant to resign with RCA, recalling her contract with the label as an arranged marriage. Instead, she accepted an offer from Atlantic Records for a record deal with larger creative freedom. And Meaning of Life, her first album with the label, is one-hundred percent reflective of this arrangement.

As I already said, we loved jamming to Kelly Clarkson’s massive hits circa 2005. But just the hits. At least for me, she never peaked my interest in her full albums, because all the songs sounded the same: pop rock and/or power-pop anthems. And that was fine, because they were good. But as much Meaning of Life is so different from anything Clarkson has ever released, it’s the most raw and uplifting she’s possibly ever sounded. Say goodbye to the pop rock and power-pop anthem Kelly Clarkson you knew. The old Kelly can’t come to the phone right now, because she’s dead.

Meaning of Life is an R&B, soul and gospel influenced record that excellently displays Clarkson’s vocal ability while also finally trying something new for the singer of those loveable but unfortunately clichéd pop anthems. Her creative control is immediately evident, from the uptempo beat of “Love So Soft” (which, like I said, is absolutely nothing like a Rihanna song), to the certified catchiness of “Heat” (next single please!), to the feminist anthem “Whole Lotta Woman.”

This is Kelly Clarkson like you’ve never experienced before, and I’m sorry it took so long for her to branch out from her previous style to try something just a little different. Maybe RCA and 19 were scared to let her branch out before because her third studio album from 2007, My December, took on a whole rock angle that received largely mixed reviews. Or maybe it was just because her power-pop anthems were so successful and so secure for everyone involved (I’d like to believe the latter). In any event, I’m happy that Clarkson opted to sign with a new label for the sake of more creative control, because if Meaning of Life is just the beginning for the new Kelly, I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Jeffrey’s favorite tracks from Meaning of Life: “Heat”, “Love So Soft”, “Meaning of Life”, “Whole Lotta Woman”, “Medicine” and “Slow Dance”