Musically, Born to Die is a pop album that derives characteristics from such musical genres as alternative hip hop and indie pop. Critical reaction was polarized, with some praising its distinctive sound, while others criticized the songs' repetitiveness and the melodramatic production, which they thought was too overwhelming over the course of 12–15 tracks. Despite attracting polarization from music commentators, the album was generally a commercial success. It topped the charts in eleven countries including Australia, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. As of November 2012, Born to Die has sold nearly three million copies worldwide. 'Born to Die' was also named as the third biggest selling album of 2012 on the UK iTunes Chart.
"I learned that there's no reason why people decide they like music when they do. Even if you're the best singer in the world, there's a good chance no one will ever hear you. You make a decision to keep singing or to stop. I've been singing in Brooklyn since I was 17 and no one in the industry cared at all. I haven't changed a thing since then and yet things seem to be turning around for me. Perhaps the angels decided to shine on me for a little while."
Del Rey talking to Ryan Dombal of Pitchfork Media.
Del Rey released a three-track EP Kill Kill in 2008 under the name Lizzy Grant, followed by a debut album Lana Del Ray in 2010. It was the singer's first professionally produced album, released under Lizzy Grant on an independent label with producer David Kahne. Del Rey stated that "David asked to work with me only a day after he got my demo. He has been known as a producer with a lot integrity and who had an interest in making music that wasn't just pop." The EP was available for purchase on iTunes for a brief period before being withdrawn. According to Kahne, Grant bought the rights back from her label, 5 Points as she wanted it out of circulation to stifle future opportunities to distribute it as she had been offered a better deal — an echo of rumors that the action was part of a calculated strategy, also confirmed in an interview with David Nichtern, label owner of 5 Points Records. Later in June 2011, Del Rey was signed with Stranger Records, to release her debut single "Video Games"; in July 2011 ("News of her signing broke in late October, but the ink on the contracts had dried in July"), she signed a joint deal with Interscope Records and Polydor Records. While being interviewed by Rosie Swash of The Observer, Del Rey revealed, "I just put that song online a few months ago because it was my favourite. To be honest, it wasn't going to be the single but people have really responded to it. I get very sad when I play that song. I still cry sometimes when I sing it.". A month or so after she signed with the two Universal Music Group sub-labels the song went viral on YouTube.
It was later reported that the singer would release her second studio album under the labels in January 2012. During an interview with French TV show Taratata, Del Rey revealed that the album would be titled Born to Die. It was released on January 27, 2012 in Brazil and in Ireland, January 30, 2012, in the UK, and on January 31, 2012 worldwide.
Music and composition
Del Rey stated the use of her lower vocals on the tracks claiming that "people weren't taking me very seriously, so I lowered my voice, believing that it would help me stand out. Now I sing quite low... well, for a female anyway." The singer's first singles, "Video Games" and "Born to Die" were described variously as "quasi-cabaret balladry", "woozy and sometimes soporific soundtrack soul", "pop", and "indie pop". Her own description of her music is "Hollywood sadcore". Tim Lee of musicOMH noted the songs are extremely similar, commenting that "her (alleged) agents clearly having stumbled upon a formula with which they can (allegedly) print money and (allegedly) further consign Lana's secretive, (allegedly) real debut LP to the annals of history. You didn't hear it from us, right?" Del Rey has once been described as a "gangsta Nancy Sinatra", though she cites Britney Spears, Elvis Presley and Antony and the Johnsons as her musical influences.
When asked about her musical style, the singer stated:
"I would have loved to be part of the indie community. But I wasn't. I was looking for a community, I don't even know any people who are musicians. I never met that indie popular indie, whoever the fuck that is. Who IS indie? First of all, I can't really get my head around what indie music is. Because if you've heard of it, it's sort of pop music, right? Because it's, like, popular? Or is it just that it's not on the radio? It's not like I was in an indie community and then I blew up. It's like, I was living on the street and I'm not – like, for real, you know what I'm saying?"
The third track, "Blue Jeans", was influenced by hip-hop and has a minimalist beat that recalls songs by Timbaland. "Off to the Races"" has been lyrically described as "a freak show of inappropriate co-dependency", with a chorus that recalls Sheryl Crow's "down and out drunken loner persona" in her 1994 single "Leaving Las Vegas". Pryia Elan of NME noted the track "almost falls under the weight of this persona. There's none of 'Video Games' measured, piano-led reflection. Instead the psychosexual rumblings of the lyrics and the dual voices she uses off set the comparatively simple musical shades on display."
Born to Die received generally mixed to favorable reviews from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 61, based on 38 reviews, which indicates "generally favorable reviews". Jaime Gill of BBC Music commented that the album "isn't perfect", criticizing the production of songs such as "Dark Paradise". However, Gill concluded that Born to Die is the most distinctive debut album since Glasvegas's eponymous disc released in 2008. Slant Magazine writer Sal Cinquemani gave the album 4 out of 5 stars, and commented that several tracks had their production changed for the album, making tracks such as "National Anthem" and "This is What Makes Us Girls" less "radio-friendly". Cinquemani stated that, "ironically, the album's sole weakness is the strength of its immaculate production, which can be a bit overwhelming over the course of 12 tracks." Alexis Petridis of The Guardian also graded it 4 out of 5 stars, saying that Born to Die is "beautifully turned pop music, which is more than enough", with most melodies "constructed magnificently", while also stating that Del Rey "doesn't have the lyrical equipment to develop a persona throughout the album." Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune gave a negative review, and highly criticized the repetitive production.
Rob Sheffield of Rolling Stone declared that the lyrics, with their "pop-trash perversity", were the strength of the album but that Del Rey had a voice that was “pinched and prim” and that she "wasn't ready to make an album yet". Sheffield rated the album 2 out of 5 and concluded, "given her chic image, it's a surprise how dull, dreary and pop-starved Born to Die is". Allmusic gave the album two-and-a-half out of five, saying "There is a chasm that separates 'Video Games' from the other material and performances on the album, which aims for exactly the same target—sultry, sexy, wasted—but with none of the same lyrical grace, emotional power, or sympathetic productions... an intriguing start, but Del Rey is going to have to hit the books if she wants to stay as successful as her career promised early on". Sputnikmusic disliked the album, saying "The worst thing about Born to Die is that even its great songs contain problems"The Observers Kitty Empire rated the album 3 out of 5 stars, and said that, unlike pop singers Lady Gaga and Katy Perry and their "hedonic outpourings", "Lana Del Rey's partying is fuelled by a knowing sadness, and sung in that laconic, hypnotic voice, which ultimately saves this thoroughly dissolute, feminist nightmare of a record for the romantics among us."
The A.V Club panned the album, calling it "Shallow and overwrought, with periodic echoes of Ke$ha's Valley Girl aloofness, the album lives down to the harshest preconceptions against pop music." Randall Roberts of Los Angeles Times also noted that the singer's vocals have "so much potential and yet [are] unrefined", and said that despite having stand out tracks like "Summertime Sadness" and "Dark Paradise", listening to the album "has become tiring and woozy, like if you'd taken a half-dozen Ambiens when you'd put the record on – and now you’re getting very, very sleepy." Pitchfork's Lindsay Zoladz gave the album 5.5/10, and commented: "The album's point of view—if you could call it that—feels awkward and out of date... [it] never allows tension or complexity into the mix, and its take on female sexuality ends up feeling thoroughly tame. For all of its coos about love and devotion, it's the album equivalent of a faked orgasm—a collection of torch songs with no fire."NME gave a positive review, giving the album 8/10 and saying "Although it's not quite the perfect pop record 'Video Games' might have led us to wish for, Born To Die still marks the arrival of a fresh—and refreshingly self-aware—sensibility in pop."
Born to Die was a commercial success. In the United Kingdom, it sold 50,000 copies on its first day of release. It debuted at number one on the UK Albums Chart and sold 116,745 copies. By accumulating digital sales of 50,007, the album became the fifth album ever to sell upwards of 50,000 downloads in a single week.Born to Die remained at the summit of the chart in its second week, selling an additional 60,000 copies. As of November 2012, the album had sold over 600,000 copies in the UK.
In France, the LP debuted at number one on the French Albums Chart with sales of 48,791, whose 16,968 digital copies. The album remained at the top position the following week with 23,888 copies sold. As of August 3, 2012, it has sold over 240,000 copies in France. In New Zealand, the album debuted and peaked at number two on the charts, spending forty-weeks in the chart.
In the United States, the album attained first-week sales of 77,000 copies, subsequently debuting at number two on the Billboard 200, behind Adele's 21, and has since sold 408,000 units in the country according to Nielsen SoundScan. As of July 2012 the album has sold over 2 million copies worldwide.
Del Rey's song "Video Games" was featured for the first time on prime spot on The CW's TV series Ringer on September 28, 2011 during a pivotal scene, propulsing Del Rey into the mainstream. Del Rey also promoted the album with performances in a number of live appearances, including for MTV Push, and at the Bowery Ballroom, where, according to Eliot Glazer of New York, "the polarizing indie hipstress brought her 'gangsta Nancy Sinatra' swagu." Matthew Perpetua of Rolling Stone commented that, despite Del Rey being nervous and anxious while performing her songs live, the singer "sang with considerable confidence, though her transitions from husky, come-hither sexuality to bratty, girlish petulance could be rather jarring." Del Rey also performed "Video Games" on Dutch television program De Wereld Draait Door, on British music television show Later... with Jools Holland, and on an intimate show at Chateau Marmont in West Hollywood, California. Del Rey also gave several interviews for newspapers and online magazines such as The Quietus,The Observer, and Pitchfork Media, while creating her own music videos for several tracks such as "Blue Jeans" and "Off to the Races". On January 14, 2012, Del Rey appeared on Saturday Night Live to perform "Blue Jeans" and "Video Games". Her performance soon came under scrutiny, and was even criticized by NBC anchor Brian Williams, who referred to the performance as "the worst in SNL history". Hosts Andy Samberg and Daniel Radcliffe quickly came to her defense, with the latter stating the criticism towards her was less about the performance and more about "her past and her family". The CW's TV series Ringer played another Del Rey song "Blue Jeans" on February 14, 2012 during the last scene of episode 13.
"Video Games" was released as Del Rey's debut single on October 10, 2011. The song received mostly positive reviews from contemporary critics, who praised Del Rey's vocals and considered it as one of the best songs of 2011. "Video Games" attained worldwide success, reaching number one in Germany and top-ten positions in Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, France, Netherlands, Ireland, Poland, Scotland, Switzerland and the United Kingdom. An accompanying music video was directed and edited by Del Rey, assembled from video clips of skateboarders, cartoons, shots from old movies, and paparazzi footage of Paz de la Huerta falling down while intoxicated. The music video was considered as the one that propelled the singer's online popularity. The second single and title track, "Born to Die", was released as a digital download on December 30, 2011. The music video for it leaked on December 14, 2011, and was based on a concept created by the singer, while being directed by Yoann Lemoine. The music video received generally favorable reviews from contemporary critics.
Del Rey announced "Blue Jeans" as the third single from the album. It was officially released on April 6, 2012. An accompanying music video, directed by Yoann Lemoine, premiered around the web on March 19, 2012. "Blue Jeans" was also released as an official single in the U.S., it impacted Triple A radio on May 21, 2012. "Summertime Sadness" was released as a single in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on June 22, 2012. The music video for "Summertime Sadness" was filmed in April and May 2012. The song "National Anthem" was announced as the fifth single and was released on July 9, 2012. The official music video for "National Anthem" was filmed in May 2012.
Due to strong digital downloads following the album's release, two songs debuted in France, "Summertime Sadness" at number 56 and "Radio" at number 67. Also, "Without You" debuted at number 121 in the UK. "Off to the Races" was released as a promotional single in The Netherlands on January 6, 2012. A music video, directed by Del Rey, was released on December 22, 2011. "Carmen" was released as a promotional single in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland on January 26, 2012. On February 27, 2012, Del Rey revealed through her Facebook that the video for the song "Carmen" was shot and would be finished being edited that day. The video for "Carmen" was released on April 21, 2012. In an interview, Del Rey stated she planned to release a music video for "Dark Paradise" in September 2012, but the video never came to fruition.