Sunday, September 22, 2013

album review: 'tattoos' by jason derulo

The year is 2009, and you're a record executive, and you're staring down at your newspaper with pictures of Rihanna's bloodied and bruised face. You later get confirmation in the day that said injuries were caused by Chris Brown, who is facing charges. You also hear through the industry grapevine that Jay-Z is infuriated by the attack on an artist he discovered and helped turn into a pop star, and has vowed to quietly torpedo Chris Brown's career, at least ensuring his new album Graffiti flops and flops hard. What do you do?

Well, in this case, you would immediately start searching for new artists to fill the niche that Chris Brown did, and you'll grab anyone who can possibly hit a note or who can dance. And that is why, throughout 2009 and 2010, we saw a surge in pop/R&B acts looking to take over Chris Brown's shoes - and there were lots of them. Taio Cruz, Jay Sean, Iyaz, Trey Songz, might as well throw Jeremih into the mix as well. And to top it all off, we have the artist who we're going to talk about today, a young man named Jason Derulo.

Now I have to be honest: throughout the summer of 2010, I really liked this guy. I have his album. By no means I thought he was a great pop star, but he had a ton of energy, he seemed genuine, and his beats (courtesy of oversampling hack JR Rotem) tended to be pretty decent. But my liking for the guy faded in record time when I started taking a look at the lyrics, and I started noticing the fact that Jason Derulo can only really sing with autotune, and that he shouts out his name at the start of every single song. In my eyes, he very quickly went from a pop star I could say I liked to one I definitely said I loathed. To me, the second album struck as the low point, with Jason Derulo hitching his fortunes to the dying club boom and his opening single 'Don't Wanna Go Home' being a nauseating open theft from multiple songs I really liked. 'Don't Wanna Go Home' ended up topping my list of the worst hit songs of 2011 (yes, even beating out LMFAO's 'Sexy And I Know It'), and to this day, I don't think I can ever forgive Derulo for it. 

But let's try to be fair here, because for some reason, Jason Derulo is still around, and to my absolute bewilderment, he's achieved some degree of chart success. To me, it's rather reminiscent of the success Flo Rida has achieved, as Jason Derulo is very much an 'anonymous' pop/R&B star: a guy who is going to have multiple charting hits, but nobody is going to know or care about him among his peers because he has so little distinctive personality. As I said, there's a reason he shouts out his name at the beginning of every song - because, in the case of the majority of audiences, you would have no idea who this guy is otherwise. And just because he has made songs I hate doesn't mean, like Flo Rida, he can't make songs I like: Flo Rida made 'I Cry', and Jason Derulo made 'Love Hangover', so there is a chance for improvement here.

And that's ultimately the reason I chose to shove back my nascent contempt for this fellow and give him another chance. Could I potentially recapture some of the positive feelings I had for Jason Derulo back in 2010?

Well, this album did serve a big purpose in recapturing some feelings I have for the guy - but I'm not quite sure they're the right ones. And while I do think this new album Tattoos is something of an improvement for Jason Derulo, it's also the sort of album that I know I'm going to have a hard time reviewing. However, I'm not sure I don't recommend Tattoos, if only because there are moments on this album that everyone needs to hear.

Okay, I need to clarify this: Jason Derulo's Tattoos is one of the very, very few albums I would ever classify as falling legitimately into the dangerously narrow category of 'So Bad It's Good'. As a critic, I typically tend to avoid this label because its usual euphemistic counterpart is that of 'guilty pleasures', and the two tend to be equivalent - and yet, I don't quite think I'd call this album a guilty pleasure. It's more in line with a trainwreck, but one so utterly mesmerizing that I cannot look away because the train is loaded with oil drums and propane and you just don't know what part of it is going to blow up in spectacular ways next. I know that's not exactly a statement of quality, but let me try to explain this, because even though the rational parts of my mind are telling me this album is quite bad, I'm still not sure I don't recommend you check it out, if only to screw with the people in accounting who are inevitably predicting a flop.

Let's start with Jason Derulo himself. While I'm still definitely not a fan of his vocals (and even less of his painfully weak falsetto), I can say as a performer he has improved. You can tell he's working his ass off on these tracks and he sells them with a ton of passion - which, for some songs, might be a tad misplaced, but I'll get to that later. It's clear that he's actively working to escape the shadows of his origin and rise up towards the top (in other words, Usher). And you know what? He actually does a much better job reasserting himself on his new tracks than he has on previous albums, and he finally dropped his irritating trademark of saying his name in his song. That's definitely a big plus for Derulo - on this album, he definitely did assert an identity. And plus, JR Rotem is nowhere to be seen on this album, and there's little to no egregious oversampling or lyrical theft, which is a huge plus in my books.

And here's where any discussion of positives and negatives goes completely out the window, and that's because we have to talk about instrumentation and songwriting. Quite simply, the instrumentation on this album spans traditional pop and R&B to modern EDM to... well, I honesty have no idea what Derulo was going for, but it's definitely unique, that's for damn sure. On the conventional side of instrumentation, it's mostly pretty forgettable, along the lines of the issues I had with Jay Sean: light, breezy, mostly upbeat, a lot of sounds that wouldn't sound out of place off of the new Backstreet Boys album. I'm not saying it's bad, but it is kind of generic and it really doesn't stand out all that much. It helps matters that the production is better than I expected, allowing songs like 'The Other Side', the title track, and 'Rest Of Our Life' gain some form of sweep and force.

But then we have tracks like 'Talk Dirty', which has this weird off-kilter strings section and heavy horns and this odd fluttering sound at the bottom of the mix and then over the chorus we have twin saxophones playing a melody that sounds vaguely Middle-Eastern - I mean, I still don't know if it works, but it's certainly bizarre and sounds like little else I've heard on the radio this year. If anything, it kind of reminds me of Lady Gaga's song 'Teeth' from The Fame Monster, and honestly, the odd instrumentation is already kind of growing on me. And then we have tracks like 'Trumpets', which starts with this delicate piano at the back of the mix and then this thick beat comes in to support a trumpet section and it completely confuses the mood - sorry, ladies, I can't exactly get into the loving mood with a big brass band behind me!

That ties into a bigger issue I have with this album - Jason Derulo doesn't exactly do subtle, so the tone is all over the place. And while I will give him points for having songwriting credits on every single track, I think it would have been in his best interest if one of his producers sat down with him and try to hammer out what on earth he's looking to do with these tracks (along with the guest stars). Now in some cases, this clearly did happen on some of the better tracks, like 'Stupid Love' (we owe some thanks to RedOne, again, for saving that track) and 'Rest Of Our Life' (which is mostly courtesy of Carl Falk, who you can credit/blame for the mainstream hits of One Direction and Nicki Minaj last year). But in other cases, somebody should have really stepped on 'Talk Dirty' to stop 2 Chainz from taking Jason Derulo's attempt to recreate Ludacris' 'All Over The World' and making it way too literal with lines like 'Sold out arenas/ you can suck my penis' (now THAT'S a rhyme).

But really, this comes back to the biggest distinguishing factor of his album: Jason Derulo's songwriting. I think the closest analogue to him is Pat Monahan from Train, a singer-songwriter who is legendary for bizarre non sequiturs, pop culture references, and making some songs way too literal when they probably shouldn't be. And for Jason Derulo, this raises a whole load of questions regarding certain songs that I'm probably not supposed to think about that hard. Take 'Vertigo' as a basic example, in which Jason Derulo and his now-girlfriend Jordin Sparks compare the feeling of hot passionate love with vertigo - okay, it's not a bad premise, to be fair, but the immediate feelings I associate with vertigo are light-headedness and vomiting, so watching the metaphor getting stretched in a song like this kind of killed any mood I had. Or take 'Trumpets', in which he says various instruments play and he's reminded of songs from certain acts (Coldplay, Katy Perry, and KANYE WEST of all people) by certain things associated with his girl, all preceded by the question 'Is it weird that...'. The thing with this is that without being specific, I don't know what songs you're talking about and that can lead to many of the answers to the 'Is it weird' question being an 'OH GOD YES'. Or take a song like 'With The Lights On', a trap-instrumentation driven song (produced by The Cataracs, a big warning sign for me), where in the chorus, Jason Derulo says the girl reminds him of 'Bad' by Michael Jackson, asks to keep his Nikes on when they're having sex and film it all on his iPhone 5, and punctuates his bizarre punchlines with a hasty 'Get it'? Oh, we get it, Jason Derulo - you may have written a song with the most explicit product placement I've seen in a while, and man does it backfire in a big way!

And yet, with all of these completely insane lyrical choices, I don't really have any hatred for this album because I have absolutely no idea how serious I'm supposed to take it in. I mean, if I take this album at face value, it's a complete disaster in terms of incoherent tone, bizarre lyrics, and moments that just made my eyes widen comically with disbelief. But the crazy part is that more than a few times, the bizarre creative decisions work way better for me than I was expecting, and thus I have a hard time considering it a parody, particularly considering there are elements on the more conventional that also work as well. To me, this is an album that kind of reminds me of Born This Way by Lady Gaga (although lacking the serious hits and serious misses that album had) or The 2nd Law by Muse, a scattershot, often complete mess of an album that shows the artist experimenting with different styles and ideas, but not in a way that's coherent or cohesive.

So look, in good conscience I can't give this album anything higher than a 5/10, but I still recommend you check it out. Tattoos by Jason Derulo does miss a bit more than it hits, but it does manage to make its failures compelling. Yeah, there are plenty of tracks on this album that don't work, but you can definitely tell he's trying and when they are failures, they're at least interesting failures. 

And with that, I think Jason Derulo earns a few points back with me. I don't think I'll ever like him as much as I used to, but if he's looking to experiment or be weird and take control of his career, I can't exactly get worked up about that, even if there are some serious missteps. So keep it up, Jason Derulo, you've got me curious to see more.

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