Wednesday, June 3, 2015

album review: 'everything is 4' by jason derulo

I remember when I reviewed Tattoos, Jason Derulo's last record in 2013. I remembered  being flabbergasted at the choices on display. I was barely able to articulate what the hell Jason Derulo was trying to do, with one foot in Bobby Brown-esque R&B and the other in his typical brand of overly slick dance-pop. And I remembered thinking that this couldn't possibly be a hit. Sure, 'The Other Side' was a fine enough opening single, but there was no way that any record executive would release singles like 'Talk Dirty' to mainstream radio, with lyrics as bad as they were. Because no public in their right mind would let him get away with songs as asinine as 'Trumpets', right?

In hindsight, the more I've covered the Billboard Hot 100 the less I've had any faith in the listening public, but 2014 was a year of success stories for Jason Derulo, to the point where songs like 'Talk Dirty' weren't just massive hit, but were influential and have spawned multiple rip-offs. And on some level I get it: in a year where pop music seemed to be taking itself more seriously, Jason Derulo being awash in bad taste at least gave him a personality. It wasn't exactly indicative of quality, as the consistently mixed critical consensus proved, and it didn't stop songs like 'Wiggle' from the Talk Dirty rerelease being absolutely atrocious, but it was at least interesting.

But here's the thing: between Tattoos and Talk Dirty, Jason Derulo actually managed to sell some records in the United States, something which he really didn't do even in his first wave of success in 2010. Now if you're a label executive and you see a record in the 'So Bad It's Good' vein like this, records that should not be successful and yet somehow are, you've got a tricky choice to make. On the one hand, you could try to keep a tight leash on him to repeat the formula, or you could give him more money, more creative control, and tell him to go nuts. And from the look of the guest stars on this list, it looks like the executives at Atlantic went in the second direction - I understand maybe getting K. Michelle or even Jennifer Lopez, but Stevie Wonder? Meghan Trainor? Keith Urban of all people? Furthermore, there's not a single rap guest verse? What the hell was Jason Derulo making with Everything Was 4?

Well, here's the odd thing: on some level Everything Is 4 by Jason Derulo doesn't surprise me, because it follows along a similar template and structure as Tattoos did, at least in terms of genre hopping instrumentally and Jason Derulo still not doing all that much for me as a performer. So it's a total mess that's all over the place, but that doesn't really shock me, even though the details of the mess are different - what did surprise me is that as a whole, even the bad songs are a little better, and the good ones are some of the best of Jason Derulo's career thus far. I'm not sure it's enough to elevate this album anything close to real quality across the board, but it's getting close to me actually giving this album a legitimate recommendation for more than just pointing and laughing, which is kind of unnerving on some level.

Because let me stress this, Jason Derulo hasn't really improved as a presence behind the microphone. Yeah, he's got energy and personality, but in terms of vocal ability, he's just not on the same level of an Usher or Trey Songz. At least he knows better than to try rapping - a lesson Chris Brown still hasn't learned - but listen closely enough and you can see the multi-tracking and pitch correction trying desperately to prop up a voice that barely has the control to not break. Hell, his increased use of falsetto on this record is exactly the wrong direction to pursue, because his warbling tone isn't strong enough to hold in that range. I will say that Derulo's choice to mostly avoid the sleazier material is a good one - mostly because his attempts in that mold are hysterical or completely unbelievable. For an R&B star, his vocal tone often comes across as way too broad, overstated, or outright silly, which is one of the reasons that his duet with Meghan Trainor on 'Painkiller' actually really works in a campy, noir-inspired number. More on that a bit later, but hell, when he was paired with Jennifer Lopez on 'Try Me', his more understated tone was well done with the worldbeat percussion and laid back pianos - in other words, he might be capable, but he doesn't often choose to do it.

That might be one of the reasons that while Tattoos and Talk Dirty seemed to be more inspired by harder-edged R&B, Jason Derulo stepping back towards dance-pop seems a slightly more comfortable fit, and it helps that his production this time around is solid enough for pop. Yeah, the synth tones he chooses are often pretty garish and nothing has a lot of depth or subtlety and a guitar with a little more sizzle or presence could have been awesome, but there's a tightness to the grooves of 'Want To Want Me', the funk of 'Love Me Down', and especially the dark watery smolder of 'Cheyenne' that's damn potent. Hell, the vibe on a track of 'Get Ugly' almost reminded me of some new jack swing, and that whipcrack on the pre-chorus and the bass line made me wish the synth tone was better or there wasn't any pitch-shifting or the chorus wasn't asinine. In fact, the synthesizer tones tend to be the weak link for this album, especially on the smeared over drone of 'Pull Up' that's trying to be a more melodic version of 'Wiggle' from that ditches the crescendo for this weedy, rubbery squeal on the chorus that sounds terrible no matter how many backing vocals you layer over it. Or on the astoundingly cheap sounding 'X2CU', with the limp keyboards that bleed across each other and do nothing for a good bassline. The rest of the album... well, look, I don't dislike the sentiment behind 'Broke' in trying to add some acoustic guitar, but the banjo at the back of the mix and that harmonica tone completely don't fit against the far slicker textures and trap percussion, and seem like a complete waste of both Stevie Wonder and Keith Urban, the former who gets only a few vocal leads and the latter who gets nothing! And the stab at more conventional R&B with the washed out, reverb-soaked 'Love Like That' shows that Jason Derulo can play in Trey Songz territory, but why would he want to, he's got nowhere near the intensity to match it and K.Michelle just blows him off the stage. The frustrated power ballad 'Trade Hearts' actually ends up working a fair bit better, paired with Julie Michaels' breathier vocals and a pretty nice sentiment for the song about a couple frustrated in trying to understand each other.

Now this takes to the lyrics, normally the area that'd send any Jason Derulo album plummeting - and I'm not going to lie and say it all works, at all. The conceit behind 'Get Ugly' is that the girls are so unbelievably hot that Jason Derulo wants them to be uglier so he can nail them, and 'Pull Up' was a collection of confused metaphors surrounding cars that barely try to be coherent. At least K. Michelle tried to inject a little subtext into 'Love Like That' to desperately rationalize the cheating, with her current partner being a neglectful ass she doesn't love, although why we needed the hilarious detail of Derulo keeping his Jays on during sex, I have no idea. And I can't stand tracks like 'X2CU', the sort of catty revenge song that feels like a sequel to Sam Hunt's 'X2C' and is only a hair more tolerable because it's at least a shared revenge and Derulo at least tries to wish his ex the best as he tries to recover with the new girl - his sincerity really does save him here. Really, it's the one element that both works for and against Derulo - he commits to these songs with such bright-eyed naivete that you can at least buy it from him. It's one of the other reasons the sour tone of 'Broke' doesn't work for me - yeah, the girl's a gold digger and you're questioning her fidelity if he were broke, but wouldn't he be better off moving on if she was only ever after the money in the first place? On the other hand, it's the exact reason more straightforward love songs like 'Try Me' and especially 'Painkiller' work so damn well. In fact, I'll say it: 'Painkiller' might be the best song Derulo or Meghan Trainor have ever done. The great smoky guitar line, horns, and textured beat and percussion do a ton, but they both sound like they're having a ton of fun and Meghan Trainor plays the retro femme fatale with more sultry energy than she did on her own album!

So to conclude... I honestly don't know if I don't recommend this. It is definitely better than Tattoos, but it's also still wildly inconsistent and Derulo's insistence on rougher material is woefully misguided, mostly because he doesn't have the sort of presence or lyricism to pull it off. But put him in the right sort of pop environment... well, I reckon he could have some potential. Unfortunately, it's not quite enough to save this album, which has enough duds to fill a third of the record and knock it back to a 5/10, but there are songs that are worthwhile. Check out 'Painkiller' or 'Try Me' or maybe 'Cheyenne', but outside of that... well, at least it seems to be moving in the right direction.

No comments:

Post a Comment