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Rita Ora: Outline Of A Pop Star

Why we know her but not her voice.

You probably know who Rita Ora is, or at least you recognize her name or face. Maybe you’ve seen her on a Vogue “Best Dressed” list or performing on SNL with Iggy Azalea. But it’s just as likely that you don’t really know what she does or why she has, say, a collection for Adidas. Ora appears to be someone who merely attends parties and nabs fashion magazine covers, but she also makes music. She’s ostensibly a famous pop singer, but she's one that most of America has never heard.

In December, Ora filed a lawsuit against Jay Z’s Roc Nation, claiming that since signing with the label in 2008 she had been “orphaned” by the company while it pursued other big ventures like Tidal. It’s the sort of debacle that many artists, including JoJo, Azealia Banks, and Sky Ferreira, have faced after signing multi-album deals with labels when they were teenagers. Because of the shifting nature of major labels, the team that initially signs and handles an artist can fragment or change entirely, leaving an artist’s representation within the company in flux.

“Rita's remaining supporters at the label left or moved on to other activities, to the point where she no longer had a relationship with anyone at the company,” reads her complaint. Stuck in a five-album deal that apparently has only allowed her to release one album, Ora argues in her suit that the deal is in violation of California’s “Seven-Year Rule,” which does not allow artists to be forced to do contract work seven years after the deal is initially made. But this year, Roc Nation has fired back with its own $2.3 million lawsuit, alleging that Rita Ora was not delivering promised albums.

When Rita Ora was signed to Roc Nation in 2008, she was poised to be Jay Z’s newest discovery, modeled in the vein of Rihanna. This was made all too obvious given that the lead U.K. single from her debut was the Drake-penned Rihanna reject “R.I.P.” However, for her U.S. lead single, the singer released “How We Do (Party),” a Bonnie McKee–written song that puts Ora squarely in the sound of Teenage Dream–era Katy Perry and Jessie J. But on both of the songs and their equally cheap videos, Ora is simply jacking the then-outdated style of these major pop stars. It’s equally clear that Ora is trying to sing or perform as a star the label has sold her as, but we hear little of what she brings to the table herself. She comes off as a simulacrum of a star, but there's no trace of what Rita Ora is.

Yet the British singer’s 2012 debut record, Ora, did get certified platinum. She was also nominated for three 2013 Brit Awards (two British Single of the Year noms and a British Breakthrough Act nom). But Ora was never released in the USA, and the singer is still waiting for her American debut. For now she’s allowed to feed Stateside audiences scraps of things, a glimmer of what she’s capable of. She has performed her new single “Body On Me,” featuring Chris Brown, on shows like Good Morning America and Jimmy Kimmel Live. She’s been featured on songs like “Black Widow” by Iggy Azalea (which made the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts) and an alternative version of “Doing It” by Charli XCX (which debuted at No. 8 on the U.K. singles chart). Ora even has an Oscar-nominated performance on the Diane Warren–written “Grateful” from the movie Beyond the Lights.

The four-year effort behind this ebbing Stateside campaign to make Rita Ora a star counted on the star power and talents of everyone but Rita Ora herself.

But we still don’t think of her as a singer, or at least not a singer with any relevance. In addition to how unsuccessful her music is, the conversation surrounding Ora has been overwhelmingly negative. “Rita Ora Is Still Trying,” says Jezebel about an unfortunate Twitter stunt asking fans to give the singer 100,000 retweets in promise of a new song. “I swear that bitch Rita Ora got a big mouth / Next time I see her might curse the bitch out,” rapped A$AP Rocky on his track “Better Things” last year. Dianne Warren called her out for not promoting her Oscar song enough. She’s not even allowed to perform one of her best songs, a collaboration with her ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris, “I Will Never Let You Down,” on TV, having been banned by Harris from performing their song live. Her struggle has officially been meme-ified.

The American public doesn’t think of Rita Ora as a compelling singer on her own, as an individual pop star, because she’s never been presented to us that way. Since the moment Rita Ora entered America’s airwaves, she has always had to share her spotlight with a collaborator like Chris Brown or Iggy Azalea, or been made to make Top 40 mimicry. Because of this, she’s positioned as a singer who needs serious help, someone who needs to piggyback on others' stardom. But that sort of positioning of an artist is the label's fault, not Ora’s. The music just hasn’t been pushed to us the way Ellie Goulding or Jessie J’s music might. It’s understandable that Americans keep questioning why we see so much of Rita Ora yet know so little about her music.

But is Rita Ora in this situation because she’s a bad artist? We hardly have enough music to discern that -- her Stateside discography is a long string of cameos that posit her as someone else's cute accessory. It would be a feat for Ora to break free from her contract and release something, anything, that establishes who she is as an artist, as a woman with a voice of her own. Right now she is merely a carefully traced outline of one.