Elissa’s new album shows the cracks behind the image

The pop star’s latest release has sparked a talent v personality debate. We investigate

The Lebanese singer, revealed through her new video for the song Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni (To Those Who Love Me), that she had been fought and overcome breast cancer.Courtesy Youness Hamiddine / Mawazine
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When it comes to promotion, Elissa couldn't ask for anything better.

Ever since dropping her latest album Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni last week, the Lebanese singer has been the subject of discussion in the Arabic social media sphere in addition to industry circles.

The fact that opinions over the latest record, the songs of which clocked up a combined 30 million views on YouTube, are divided is par for the course when it comes to the 45-year-old.

A genuine talent or savvy performer?
Ever since emerging onto the scene in 2002, Elissa has been a polarising figure among both fans and critics. While some praised a talented and dynamic artist behind the regional hits Law Taarafou and Ayami Bik, others see a mercurial and technically weak singer saved by savvy song choices.

Ila Kol Elli, Elissa's 11th album, provides proof for those on both camps, thus ensuring the debate will rage on for some time.

With a whopping 16 tracks, which is rather excessive when it comes to Arabic pop albums, Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni is a pleasant yet bloated effort by Elissa.

Despite the trademark dramatic and orchestral tracks, what is interesting about the new collection is some of the topics it covers.

The album’s title track is essentially a love letter to fans for staying the course over the years and not abandoning her “even for a second”. While songs that pay tribute to supporters is nothing new when it comes to Arabic pop, for someone renowned for a tough and unapologetic demeanour, such as Elissa, this one seems different.

That anguished rasp in the chorus could perhaps hint at an admission that the years of negative press, reported feuds with colleagues and ­broadcasters, and an all-round icy demeanour may have begun to test the faithful.

This perhaps explains her media do-over in the past two years.

Where before Elissa's appeal partly lay in a calculated remoteness to the press and the public, her recent moves suggest she wants to be closer to her fans, and what better way than to appear as part of one of the most watched talent shows in the region. In addition to announcing a yet-to-be released online reality television series following her life, Elissa also signed on to appear as a mentor on the latest season of The Voice, which ended in May.

It was a masterstroke: the Arabic version of the global talent show, screened on the regional broadcaster MBC, has been central in rehabilitating celebrity mentors such as the cantankerous Emirati diva Ahlam and the uber-serious Lebanese crooner Assi Helani, as well as developing the likes of Egyptian heartthrob Mohammed Hamaki. But true to form, Elissa’s debut season on the programme received a mixed response from critics and fans.

The latter relished in watching Elissa mentoring her charges each weekend, and in the process shedding her image from ice queen in a ballgown to a cool denim-jacket-wearing big sister.

For the critics, Elissa’s participation in the show ­confirmed a prevailing viewpoint that she is more personality than talent as she offered her mentees mere platitudes when what they really needed was direction.

The Queen of Emotions
Elissa tackles these issues in Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni, but in a manner more metaphorical than confrontational.

Instead of taking the topics head-on, she is content in discussing the feelings they elicit.

Indeed, “The Princess of Emotions”, as Elissa is dubbed by fans, doesn’t shy away from discussing issues such as love, rejection, fragility and resignation.

In Kitira Aleh, she admits her tough-as-nails demeanour is merely a put-on. Over a soft breeze of strings and oud she states: "I can't show myself as weak and afraid no matter how much I have lost."

In the album highlight, the torch song that is Ana Wahida, Elissa describes the loneliness that comes with life in the limelight: "I am weak, these lonely nights are scary. My life is boring and silly. In the same circle I have been walking for years."

This cycle Elissa alludes to was perfectly illustrated last week with her post celebrating her friendship with Argentine footballing superstar Lionel Messi, and media reports of her falling out with a string of producers and composers over the last decade.

The latest of which is with Egyptian composer Rami Al-Shafei who went online to vent his frustration that Elissa released their collaboration Marida Ihtimam in her new album without his consultation.

He joins master songwriter Marwan Khoury who also parted ways with the star after what he delicately described to The National as "a difference in opinion". The fact that the song has been one of the most streamed online, with 3.7 million views on YouTube, is one of many bittersweet moments that's part of Elissa's career.

With Ila Kol Elli Bihebbouni, she seems to say that all drama is beginning to take its toll, but its big reception proves her fans simply can't get enough.


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