— Miley Ray Cyrus (@MileyCyrus) June 14, 2013
In control of her sound and image, Miley is mixing hip-hop edge with country twang, and storming the Billboard Hot 100 with “We Can’t Stop”
“This is the worst spot to stand.”
In the middle of a photo studio in Hollywood, Miley Cyrus faces a video crew there to capture the pop icon relaying spritely promos for an upcoming blitz of TV appearances on “Good Morning America” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” There’s a director on hand, but it’s clear who’s running the show.
“Look, I’m not fat or anorexic-I just know my angles,” Cyrus instructs the cameraman. She then goes over the scripts, which are a little too cutesy for her taste-the copy riffs on the title of her new single, “We Can’t Stop,” released just the day before. “I hate it when people make puns out of my song titles,” she says, before adding with a slight smile, “Should I do a Christian Bale and start freaking out?”
She’s kidding, of course: Despite her strong opinions, Cyrus proves anything but a diva in person. She’s utterly professional, hits her marks (there’s never a need for more than two takes) and charms the crew with equal parts humor and chutzpah.
But it’s also clear that no one knows better how to present Miley Cyrus than Miley Cyrus: There aren’t many 20-year-olds who have earned the veteran showbiz stripes she has. Just out of middle school, the 12-year-old daughter of country hitmaker Billy Ray Cyrus quickly catapulted to fame as the star of Disney’s “Hannah Montana” TV franchise, playing a normal girl with a double life as a teen-pop phenomenon. Fact quickly followed fiction: Soon, Cyrus had evolved into a global brand, with hit movies and multiplatinum sales-when 2007’s Hannah Montana 2 (Soundtrack)/Meet Miley Cyrus debuted atop the Billboard 200, the then-14-year-old Cyrus became the youngest female to have a No. 1 album. The Hannah Montana albums have sold a combined 7.1 million copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, while the releases under Cyrus’ name account for 7.2 million. In 2009, her Dr. Luke-produced single “Party in the U.S.A.” reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, selling 5.2 million copies.
“Right now, when people go to iTunes and listen to my old music, it’s so irritating to me because I can’t just erase that stuff and start over,” she says. “My last record [2009’s EDM-inflected Can’t Be Tamed] I feel so disconnected from-I was 16 or 17 when I made it. When you’re in your 20s, you just don’t really know that person anymore.”
Teen stars experiencing growing pains as they-and their music-make the transition to adulthood are nothing new. Yet there’s something different about Cyrus’ next chapter. It’s less a transition than a complete makeover-a brand relaunch, if you will. Peter Edge-CEO of RCA, the label Cyrus signed with after breaking with Disney-affiliated Hollywood Records-refers to it as “Miley 2.0.” Cyrus herself says, “I want to start as a new artist. I consider my upcoming album my first, really.”
“What she’s doing now is not what people expect from her,” Edge says. Indeed, “We Can’t Stop,” the first single from her still-untitled fall album, isn’t a bright and bouncy pop song. If the track-which debuts this week at No. 11 on the Hot 100 and enters the Hot Digital Songs chart at No. 3 with 214,000 sold, according to Nielsen SoundScan-sounds more like a downtempo Rihanna song, that’s because it was originally intended as one. “It’s like a mature version of ‘Party in the U.S.A.,'” Atlanta-based producer Mike WiLL Made It says. “That’s even how I described it when I presented it to Rihanna, before I’d even met Miley.”
“We Can’t Stop” definitely draws the line between the adult Cyrus and the person she was before, down to its risque, twerked-out lyrics (“To my homegirls with the big butts/Shaking it like we at the strip club”) and drug references (“Everyone in line in the bathroom/Trying to get a line in the bathroom/We all so turned up here”). Cyrus came of age with social media-one could argue her constant stream of YouTube videos influenced how her audience uses that medium to document their own lives. (And she experienced the pitfalls of just that when footage of her smoking the hallucinogen salvia went viral in 2010.) She sees the lyrics of “We Can’t Stop” as another kind of reportage from her world.
“I didn’t make this song for the critics, but for the people living it,” she says, dragging on a cigarette between shoots atop the photo studio’s roof, where she’s stripped down to a leather bustier to soak in the rays. “I’m 20 years old and I want to talk to the people that are up all night with their friends. It’s based on a true story of a crazy night I had: When I heard the song for the first time, it captured exactly what I was living.”
Cyrus is quick to point out that, having left one bandwagon, she’s not about to jump on another. “I’ve always wanted country-rock influences, but now I’m moving over to a more urban side,” she says. “It’s not a hip-hop album, though-it’s a pop album. I’m not coming in trying to rap. It’s more like, ‘I don’t see any girls out there doing what Miguel and Frank Ocean are doing.'” Cyrus pauses, giggling. “We’ve been calling it ‘count-step,’ because it’s like country, dubstep and a little trap,” she says. “I love the Lumineers, but I also love French Montana, Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and Dolly Parton. If you could put Dolly, some Adele and Juicy J together, you’d have that weird balance.”
That weird balance comes through in the choice of producers working on the album. Reliable hitmakers Will.i.am and Dr. Luke both make appearances, as well as newcomers like Oren Yoel. But before Cyrus had even approached RCA, she began mapping out a new sonic vision with Pharrell in Miami. “We wanted to make something really different,” she says. “He came to my house, and I didn’t have shoes on-I don’t put a show on for anybody. He said, ‘This is why I love you: You’re just wild and free, and I want to capture that.'”
The pair wrote a song called “Rubber Band” that first day, and quickly had another, “4 x 4,” which Pharrell describes as a union of “foreign elements.” Cyrus knew they were onto something. Others were less sure. “People weren’t getting it,” Cyrus says with a groan. “They were like, ‘He doesn’t have anything out right now.’ I was like, ‘Who the fuck cares? He’s Pharrell.’ He played me a bunch of stuff he was working on that was crazy-new Robin Thicke records and the Daft Punk stuff. I realized his life was about to change the way my life was. Now look: Pharrell’s killing everyone and starting his empire all over again. And once he set me free on my path, that brought me to Mike WiLL.”
In addition to “We Can’t Stop,” the Mike WiLL tracks on the album include “Stand by Me” featuring Future-which WiLL describes as “one of the greatest songs ever; a big feel-good, stadium, Super Bowl-sounding record”-and “Drive,” which features murky dubstep/trap synths and drums that’ll be best heard banging out of club systems. The passionate, desperate singing, however, proudly reveals Cyrus’ roots. “I told her, ‘Keep your country twang,'” WiLL says. “That’s what’s ill about her.”
“A lot of people wanted to try to make me the white Nicki Minaj,” Cyrus says. “That’s not what I’m trying to do. I love ‘hood’ music, but my talent is as a singer.” To that end, Edge is particularly excited about “Wrecking Ball”-a defiant power ballad produced by Dr. Luke with a thrilling vocal performance. “We were inspired by OneRepublic, and the way Timbaland used to do those big ballads,” Cyrus says. Edge adds: “When Miley came to us she had really good songs already, including ‘Wrecking Ball,’ which blew us away. It could be a career song for her.”
She takes a most uncharacteristic pause, dragging on her cigarette as she contemplates the Los Angeles landscape. “I never stop working, ever-I put my track list together this morning,” Cyrus says. “I want my record to be the biggest record in the world, and I’ve given everything to get here, even down to friends and family and relationships-I’ve just put this music first. That’s been kind of a trip: It’s not like I’m losing who I am-I actually found out more about who I am by making this music. I’m going on a journey, and that’s more than a lot of 20-year-olds can say. And I’m still going to change so much. Because I’m not the same person I was six months ago-I’m not even the same person I was two weeks ago.”
This is an excerpt. For the complete story, buy this week’s issue of Billboard.