Wednesday, October 19, 2016

album review: 'mad love' by jojo

Are we really doing this? Okay, you all asked for it... 

So decades ago a record executive named Sam Phillips made the statement that if he could find a white guy who sang like a black man he could make a million dollars - and he was proven all too right by discovering Elvis. And sure, Elvis was a great singer and made some great music, but let's not pretend he was doing anything that black rock and roll artists hadn't been doing for years. And let's also not pretend this sort of thing has gone away with time - hell, look at the brief moment of success Iggy Azalea got in 2014. Look at how despite Eminem's wise decision to always pay tribute to the greats and his tendency to rip into his own whiteness in hip-hop as a sick joke, there are so many white boys who still consider him one of the greatest rappers of all time - and yeah, before I delved deeper into the genre, I was one of them.

All of this was on my mind a lot when I started getting requests to cover JoJo, and for all of those of you who had a brief flicker of recollection before wondering where the hell you know that artist, let's go back to the mid-2000s. Keep in mind the Billboard charts were in a weird spot in 2004-2006, especially the pop scene which was transitioning from R&B's dominance to whatever might come next. As such, we got the indie rock boom, a brief swell of mid-tempo adult alternative, and in response to this most pop starlets were allowed to develop a bit more of an edge or texture. But R&B was still mostly dominant, so into this scene comes JoJo, a girl who is my age and yet dropped her debut album in 2004, when she and I were both fourteen. And you can tell by the way she was marketed to try and snag that sweet spot between pop and R&B, the teenage white girl that sang like a black girl - hell, she was signed to Blackground Records, one of the labels behind Aaliyah - and make no mistake, it worked. JoJo's self-titled debut album sold five million copies worldwide, and it wasn't because it was good or authentic. Yeah, that's the other unfortunate surprise about revisiting this material, not just because the production and writing have aged pretty badly, but because I didn't find Jojo that interesting or potent of a singer. She had pipes, but a lot of her material felt pretty cheaply produced, which didn't help any authenticity questions.

So okay, that was the mid-2000s - it's been ten years, where has JoJo been? Well, after her follow-up album couldn't produce a single after 'Too Little, Too Late', she finished high school and then spent the next several years fighting with Blackground, which later went out of business. Granted, they gave her a shot with 'Disaster' in 2011 where she went full pop... and eh, both Kelly Clarkson and Demi Lovato were doing this sound better even then, even though it sounded like she had finally grown into her voice. But JoJo was still around - she dropped two mixtapes that picked up a little traction, and when she got picked up by Atlantic she released a few EPs that somehow picked up enough traction for a third album. And you know, in a strange sense it might have helped her to sit out the past ten years of pop - she wouldn't have fit well with the flashier divas of the early 2010s, and I have to admit there's a very small part of me that wouldn't mind seeing her explosive vocals make a comeback. Furthermore, unlike her previous albums she had the main writing credits on this record, and while you wouldn't find many name producers, this was a chance for a fresh start. I'll admit right out of the gate I wasn't interested at all when I started getting a tidal wave of requests, but the research I did got me intrigued, so how is Mad Love?

This was an intriguing listen, more than I expected it would be. Not a great or altogether good listen, let me stress this, but in terms of what one could reasonably expect from JoJo in terms of her sound and content it's about as good of a comeback as her fans could hope. In terms of great pop-leaning R&B, I don't think she's anywhere close to the best of the year - Beyonce has nothing to worry about here - but it's passable, albeit barely, and I can accept that my issues with JoJo as a singer-songwriter would probably persist if even if this wasn't a comeback.

So let's start with those, shall we? JoJo has gotten a lot of acclaim for her vocals and tremendous range, but I wasn't a huge fan in the 2000s and that hasn't really changed, mostly because of a lack of refinement or technique. You know how a lot of people get irked with Ariana Grande because she doesn't enunciate or sounds a little like she sings through her nose? I don't often agree with that criticism, but when I do hear it, JoJo steps up to showcase it so much worse. And what's frustrating is that she doesn't need to do this - on songs where she is more restrained she tends to be a fair bit more compelling, playing for bravado with Remy Ma on 'F.A.B.'. But it's not entirely her fault either, because the vocal pickup and production is all over the place on this record in fidelity and quality, and there are way too many tracks like 'Honest' and 'High Heels' and especially 'Edibles' where not only does she not have room to breathe, it feels like we're not nearly getting the full extent of her range, honestly coming through a little thin. And it's not just her either: 'Fuck Apologies' has Wiz Khalifa phoning in his guest verse and even it feels muffled around the edges and poorly blended. And sure, she gets songs like 'I Am' with thicker multi-tracking or stronger backing vocals like on the title track, but not often enough.

Granted, this takes us into a conversation about the production and instrumentation... and look, it's not all bad. The piano ballads 'Music' and 'I Am' are stripped back enough to be hard to screw up, especially melodically, and the underlying guitar against the reverb and bassy snap on 'F.A.B.' was pretty solid too. The title track goes for retro soul with the guitar and sax and heavier backing vocals also works pretty well, and the blurry guitar and synth tones against the heavier drums on 'Like This' work pretty well too - hell, a lot of the grooves here on this record aren't bad. But let's not mince words, instrumentally there is little to nothing on this record that you haven't heard thus far in pop or R&B this year: trap percussion over melody, pitch-shifted vocal fragments, hints of tropical sounds on 'Vibe' and 'I Can Only', and all of it swamped in reverb - although in that case, the reverb often feels selectively applied to some instruments or vocal lines rather than the mix as a whole. And the overall quality of these mixes is all over the board - for example, I liked the idea on the surface of 'High Heels' but there's no body to those guitars or synths. And that's not counting the songs that are just awkwardly written, like 'Honest' - it starts with a fragment of a song before a clunky as hell transition to an entirely different tempo with even more reverb - and this part would have been fine on its own, but it doesn't work the preceding piece, which doesn't even match in the lyrics. And I want to forgive more of this because there are melodies and hooks here I like - 'F.A.B.' is probably the best, but 'Mad Love' and 'Vibe' are decent and there's a part of me that likes 'Fuck Apologies' - but the quality in the production really doesn't come through well.

Okay, what about the lyrics? Well again, this album isn't doing anything all that revolutionary when it comes to pop/R&B: love and sex songs, breakup anthems, telling off the haters, and your standard set of self-esteem anthems where I can't help but tune out. And while I don't mind some of the lyrical flow on songs like 'Vibe' or 'F.A.B.' or 'Like This', dig a little deeper and I can't say I'm all that impressed. For one, JoJo tends to drop the rhyme scheme a lot more than she otherwise should for no good reason, and for another, a lot of these songs have stronger ideas than they have execution. The opening track 'Music' which serves as both a tribute to her parents and the concept of music itself for saving her is an interesting choice to start the record, but it's also one of the few moments where we get distinctive details, whereas both 'I Can Only' and 'I Am' both feel like your standard self-esteem anthem template. Then there's word choices and song choices that just make scratch my head - I liked how the title track can feel a little off-kilter, but 'you keep me insane'? Or does the desaturated hammering vibe of 'Like This' work for the sort of sex song that it is? Or on 'Edibles', a song that tries to make sex when high attractive and really just feels as clumsy with its word choice and metaphors as sex when high probably is - and maybe the belting isn't the best choice either? That's the bigger issue - for as much bombast as her delivery can convey, the production and writing don't flatter that lack of subtlety all that well, which can lead to moments that should hit harder just falling flat.

In the end... look, congratulations to JoJo for getting her career back together, but this comeback gave me very little to work with. The production is all over the place, the writing is decent at best, the performances tend to be overdone, and JoJo hasn't really evolved much as a distinct performer. Honestly, I think the only reason I consider this record passable are a few good hooks, Alessia Cara and Remy Ma doing well, and the fact that this record doesn't seriously stumble with outright bad songs. But even still, this is a very strong 5/10 and even then I feel like I'm being generous. If you're a JoJo fan, you'll probably like this - it's certainly a modern update of her sound - but otherwise, outside of a few decent pop/R&B cuts, you're not getting much.

1 comment:

  1. Are you going to cover Sabrina Carpenters album EVOLution?