For years, almost everyone agreed on Taylor Swift. She wrote pretty love songs and scorching take-downs, while most people struggled to put together a witty tweet.
She scattered clues through her lyrics and liner notes, inviting die-hard fans to puzzle over what was fact and what was fiction.
She won loads of awards. She was observant and savvy, and if those qualities were spun into a type of opportunistic cunning by her critics, it seemed like a good problem to have.
Taylor Swift spent a large part of the past year off the radar. Judging by the sound of her sixth album, she spent that time going into deeper, darker, more introspective places.
"Reputation" is her most personal album yet – a musical story about how it feels when you stop chasing love and start letting your life happen. She's trying something new. But because she's Taylor Swift, she can't stop being her own turbulent, excessive, exhausting and glorious self.
Everyone expected "Reputation" to be a bit of a pity party, after hearing her voice her outrage about being mistreated on her single, "Look What You Made Me Do". Even if you thought her complaints were justified, they felt like a boring waste of her creativity.
But there's nothing else like that song on "Reputation". Instead, she's aiming for bigger emotional stakes. This is an album filled with a more serious theme. The songs explore a timely question... What happens to your identity when you step back and stop defining yourself by how others see you?
The word "reputation" comes up in a few songs – not in reference to how the public may see her, but the far more relatable dilemma of how you surrender your identity to the number of "likes" you gather every day. That's a daring swerve, from a songwriter who's scored as many hits as she has by singing about pursuing the next romantic adventure.
Another question raised by "Reputation" is whether Swift embracing the role of a wolf in sheep's clothing created by the world of public gossip will backfire. Is this who she really wants to be, or is it just a pose assumed out of necessity?
In the album's liner notes, Swift addresses this gossip, both as an industry and as a concept. "We may hear rumours about a person and believe those things to be true," Swift writes. "We may one day meet that person and feel foolish for believing baseless gossip. When this album comes out, gossip blogs will scour the lyrics for the men they can attribute to each song."
Songs like "Ready For It?" and "Don't Blame Me" are glittering monsters held together by Swift's presence at their centre. Her best performances throughout "Reputation" are defined by cadence and rhythm, not melody. She's cool, conversational and detached.
The album ends on its most calming note, with the acoustic ballad "New Year's Day". It's the quietest moment on "Reputation", yet the most powerful. "Please don't ever become a stranger whose laugh I could recognise anywhere."
This is Taylor at her best – not settling old scores that are past their expiration date, but writing the kind of lines reputations are made of.
This article originally appears in Glamour magazine South Africa.