Saturday, August 3, 2013

album review: 'neon' by jay sean

For most of this week, I was seriously considering not doing this review.

And really, it's not like I'd be alone in this particular endeavour. To say this album has been overlooked is understating it. On this album's Wikipedia entry, there are precisely two reviews, and both of them barely scratch the surface of cursory and token. Pitchfork ignored this album entirely. Instead of reviewing this album, the AV Club opted to review the new Backstreet Boys album. And sure, I covered the Backstreet Boys album, but that's because I'm a fan and I cover pop music more than the majority of critics. Keep that in mind - the guy who bothered to review, 3OH!3, and Selena Gomez nearly made the choice to completely ignore this guy.

Now some of you might be asking why on earth so many critics are apathetic towards this new album. To explain that, you need to understand the events in the pop music scene of about four years ago - namely, Chris Brown's assault on Rihanna. While it provided ample fodder for the tabloids, the less-spoken-of fact was it also created a certain tumult in the industry. Suddenly the world had woken up to the fact that not only was Chris Brown's musical output painfully mediocre, but that he was also a generally awful human and thus wouldn't sell the same number of records (Jay Z's quiet sabotage to Brown's career notwithstanding). And when Chris Brown's album Graffiti flopped, record executives got desperate to replace the woman-beating Usher-wannabe that had been bankrolling their eleventh yacht.

So throughout 2009 and 2010, we got bombarded by a host of young R&B acts looking to take Chris Brown's place. Some, like Trey Songz and arguably Taio Cruz, managed to construct something of a personality and have a bit of staying power, while others (Iyaz and that talentless hack Jason Derulo) scraped by through having no talent or personality whatsoever, manufactured pop stars in everything but name. And it was somewhere in the middle of all of this that we get our pop star of today, a British-Indian R&B singer who called himself Jay Sean. 

Now to be completely honest, I've never had a problem with this guy. I can't exactly call him great, but he's never been offensive or unlistenable, and I can't say either of his two hits ('Down' and 'Do You Remember') were anything worth hating. However, that's also indicative of part of the problem. Jay Sean isn't bad, he's boring, the sort of studio-produced pop/R&B creation who is pleasant enough to hear but immediately forgotten afterwards. And sure, that might have worked well enough when trying to replace the greatest dearth of charisma in music, but since Chris Brown came back, what has Jay Sean done to make himself distinctive or interesting or worth talking about? And as most music critics will tell you, there's nothing worse than reviewing an act that doesn't have the slightest iota of personality.

But with that being said, I eventually decided that I should at least say something or give this guy a bit of a chance. I mean, somebody probably put money into this album, and I figured that solitary producer might be curious to hear what the critical press has to say as he looks up from the cocaine bucket. And like it or not, I'm one of the few critics who actually tends to give pop music more of a chance. So how did Jay Sean's new album Neon turn out?

Youtube Review after the jump

Well, I can say this. Neon is an album by Jay Sean. It exists. It is also not worth your time.

What, do you actually want more here? Does anyone still care about Jay Sean? Really? The guy has approximately zero personality, and getting through this album without nodding off was a serious challenge - you now want me to actually provide an opinion about an artist who has jumped into the running against Jack Johnson as one of the most boring musical acts working today?

I don't make that Jack Johnson comparison idly, by the way. The majority of this album contains acoustic guitar, either as the primary instrumentation of the song or as supplementary to a generic club beat that sounds painfully dated at best. The one place the guitar does kind of work is on the album's best track 'Sucka For You' (a reggae-themed song that has more personality than the entire album combined, but even that's not saying much), but there was a hint of an edge there, in comparison to the off-the-rack acoustic guitar he uses for the rest of the album. I get why said guitar was used - mostly in order to create a more intimate atmosphere - and I'll give Jay Sean some credit and argue that at least most of the time he sounds sincere and invested (which puts him above John Mayer any day). 

Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that some of those attempts at intimacy might be a tad misplaced, mostly because of the lyrical content. Like the rest of Jay Sean's oeuvre, it's bland to the point of being manufactured by computers, but the majority of the songs either focus on Jay Sean attempting to win over a girl or struggle with a relationship falling apart. And in the latter category, the lyrics certainly don't paint him in a flattering light: he either comes across as completely ignorant to why the relationship fell apart or like a jealous douchebag.

What becomes odd, however, is that this sort of sour behaviour doesn't lend Jay Sean any sort of 'edge' or presence, and in the songs where he attempts to sound seductive or tries to pick up women, each attempt falls flat on its face. Now admittedly, part of the problem is Jay Sean's lack of personality, but a bigger issue is that in the moments he does attempt to show some vestige of character or charisma, he sounds woefully out of his depth. And that's not even touching on the tracks that are attempting to play him as some sort of club high roller, which come across as laughable, even with the support of the guest stars (all of which phone it in, with the most disappointing being Busta Rhymes). 

And then I figured it out: Jay Sean, as an artist, has absolutely no idea who he wants to emulate. For the latter half of the album, it seems like he has his sights on sounding like Chris Brown (their voices are disturbingly similar), but as much as I hate to admit it, Chris Brown has personality and a distinctive style. It's repulsive, to be sure, but at least it's there. And while some critics are making the 'boy band' comparison (one that certainly feels apt for the first half of the album), I don't quite buy that either. Unlike, say, the Backstreet Boys, Jay Sean doesn't have the personality or effective hooks that make their songs so catchy and infectious, even if the production might share some incidental similarities. 

No, Jay Sean instead comes off as a stock Disney 'good guy': pleasant, inoffensive, boring, and utterly sexless. And his music unfortunately emulates that personality: pleasant, inoffensive, boring, and utterly sexless. This album was apparently stuck in development hell, and I believe it, because outside of sounding like a slightly nicer version of Chris Brown, there's absolutely nothing here that would stick with a listener or appeal to much of anyone. It's not even worth my time to call this material 'bad' - no, this album is sterile and empty, safe and utterly homogeneous.

So yeah, skip Jay Sean's Neon. You may all go back to forgetting he existed - that's certainly my plan.

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