In 2007, Elizabeth "Lizzy" Grant signed a recording contract with the independent record label 5 Point Records, and began planning for her debut studio album. However, after hiring new management services, taking an interest in adopting the stage name Lana Del Ray, and a perceived lack of motivation during production, she found herself in conflict with the record label and her producer David Kahne. The final product Lana Del Ray was digitally released in January 2010, although her stage name was respelled Lana Del Rey shortly after its launch. Grant was successfully bought out of her recording contract upon the request of her manager; consequently, Lana Del Ray was pulled out of circulation before physical versions were produced.
After settling with her current stage name, Del Rey signed a recording contract with Stranger Records in June 2011, and released the track "Video Games". Initially, she had released the song because it was her "favorite" and had no intentions of releasing it as a single, although the video went viral on YouTube after its premiere. During an appearance on the French television series Taratata in November 2011, Del Rey announced that her second studio album would be titled Born to Die.
The cover for Born to Die was photographed by Nicole Nodland, while Del Rey and David Bowden oversaw the overall direction for its packaging. On behalf of Complex, Dale Eisinger ranked the cover eighth on the magazine's list of "The 50 Best Pop Album Covers of the Past Five Years", commending its usage of the typeface Steelfish and speaking favorably of the "ominous" feeling it evoked, which she credited to "the shadows or whatever the shapes in the background are [and] how properly Lana can affect her detached and still-flawless persona to a simple gaze". Its track listing was announced on January 9, 2012, while the record itself was released on January 31 in the United States; it became her major-label debut after securing a distribution arrangement with Interscope Records.
In regards to the use of her lower vocals on the tracks, she stated 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", and "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".
"Off to the Races", "National Anthem", and "Diet Mountain Dew" employ an alternative rap technique that was described as almost "chatty". "Million Dollar Man" was likened to a sedated Fiona Apple. Musically compared to soundtracks for James Bond films, Born to Die contains trip hop beats and a cinematic sound reminiscent of the 1950s. Thematically, Born to Die circulates around sex and drugs, with Del Rey playing a Lolita-esque persona. Bill Lamb, a reviewer at About.com, wrote that "National Anthem" "[seems] lost in a messy blend of money, sex, and corporate greed, but it is the rousing yet graceful arrangement that solidifies the song's point of view as a clever critique of a society that is just as messy as these words". "National Anthem", Lamb says, fits into the lyrical structure of Born to Die in that the theme, as a whole, is that of a "bitter, albeit narcotized, criticism of all of the wealth and emotional artifice Lana Del Rey is accused of embracing". Vocally, NME observed that Del Rey sings like a "perfect mannequin" on "National Anthem", criticizing the track for baldly revisiting the beat-driven chorus of "Born to Die".
Del Rey's song "Video Games" was featured for the first time on prime spot on The CW's Ringer on September 28, 2011 during a pivotal scene, propelling 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 Los Angeles, 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". 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 following "Video Games" and "Born to Die". It was officially released on April 6, 2012. An accompanying music video, directed by Yoann Lemoine, premiered around the web on March 19, 2012. "Summertime Sadness was released as the fourth single on June 22, 2012. The official music video was released on July 20, 2012. "National Anthem" was announced as the fifth single and was released on July 6, 2012. The music video for "National Anthem" was released on June 27, 2012. "Dark Paradise" was also released as the final single on March 1, 2013 only in Germany, Switzerland, Austria and Poland.
Due to strong digital downloads following the album's release "Radio" charted at number 67 in France. 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.
"Born to Die" received mixed reviews from music critics upon its release. At Metacritic, which assigns a weighted mean rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 62 based on 37 reviews, indicating "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 Observer's 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 Kesha'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."
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. Additionally, it was the fastest selling album of 2012, becoming the first album to reach 100,000 copies sold in that year. Born to Die remained atop the chart in its second week, selling an additional 60,000 copies. As of November 2013, the album had sold over 836,000 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 June 2014, it has sold over 500,000 copies in France. In New Zealand, the album debuted and peaked at number two on the charts, spending forty weeks in the chart. After the conjunction of Born to Die: The Paradise Edition, the album charted at number six. "Born to Die" is the fifty-seventh best charting album of all time in that country.
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 shipped over 500,000 units in the country by January 2013, getting Gold certification. On the week ending August 31, 2013, though the album was over its 80th week on the chart, it re-entered the Top 20. As of June 2014, Born to Die has sold 1,100,000 copies in the United States, and has been certified platinum by the RIAA. In Italy, the album debuted at number five. The week after, it fell to number nine. In the first two weeks, the album has sold 6,271 copies. As of June 2012, the album has sold in Italy 24,372 copies. After the re-release in November 2012, the album jumped from 27 to 14. The LP has since been certified Gold. Following an iTunes discount, the album re-entered the iTunes Top 10 and jumped from 57 to 31 on the Italian Charts on the week-ending April 28, 2013. On the week-ending June 2, 2013, the album spent its seventieth week on the chart and fell ten spots to number 46. According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), Born to Die was the fifth global best-selling album of 2012 with sales of 3.4 million copies.
With the release of Born to Die, Del Rey became the main focus of attention of the press, not only for her music but her image. Since her debut with "Video Games", the singer has been causing a stir in the media, which has caused many to begin to question about her past and accuse her of trying to erase it with a different type of songs and style. Considering the album's composition and her appearance, many tabloids began to question her authenticity and said that her success was due only to her beauty. Also, speculation arose that Del Rey was just a character created by Lizzy Grant and pop music industry, with her label trying to get a place and audience within indie music.
Business Insider's Kevin Lincoln commented that Lana was manufactured by her label and used "Video Games" as a form of advertising. In defense of the singer, Jaime Gill from BBC Music wrote: "If you want an explanation for the unlikely rise of Lana Del Rey, it isn't that hard to find. Ignore accusations of cynical marketing and inauthenticity, or speculation about surgery and daddy's money – that's not important. And don't get distracted by YouTube statistics or the hyperbole, this isn't about new media. It's about something older and more mysterious than that; the extraordinary, resilient power of pop music". Sasha Frere Jones of The New Yorker came out in defense of the artist as well, writing: "The weirder strain of criticism concerns authenticity [...] Detractors cite a variety of presumed conspiracies, some involving the influence of her father, Rob Grant [...] The rumor of manipulative managers guiding her; the reality of professional songwriters working for her [...] and how Grant's top lip got so big so fast [...] Surely no equivalent male star would be subject of the same level of examination." Sharing a similar view, Ann Lee wrote in Metro: "I know it's fun to slate [Lana] but she's got a great voice – that's a fact". Sal Cinquemani of Slant Magazine also proved to be in favor of Del Rey, declaring: "I was initially puzzled by the accusations of inauthenticity that were hurled with such vehemence and frequency at Lana Del Rey in the wake of her meteoric rise to it girl status last year [...] And I guess we're supposed to lament the fact that, unlike Amy Winehouse, she doesn't appear to have a predilection for dope or booze to back up her supposed bad-girl bona fides. But since when exactly has 'authenticity' ever been a criterion in pop music?".
After years of criticism and her Saturday Night Live performance being considered one of the worst of all time, music magazines such as Billboard, NME and Complex listed Born to Die among the best albums of the decade.
Credits adapted from the liner notes of Born to Die.Notes
^[a] signifies a co-producer
^[b] signifies a vocal producer
^[c] signifies an additional producer
^[d] signifies a remixer
Credits adapted from the liner notes of Born to Die.