Sunday, July 21, 2019

album review: 'singular: act ii' by sabrina carpenter

Alright, round two, shall we?

Now for those of you unawares, this will be my second time covering a Sabrina Carpenter project, as I reviewed Act I of this series last year - and to my mild surprise, got a fair amount of traffic - and backlash - for it. And while some of this might be rooted in me just having heard too much of this style of pop before - not helped by being stuck on Hollywood Records where this sound has been utterly recycled and poorly produced time and time again - there were still blatant parallels to mainstream acts that Carpenter was mimicking, and not particularly well. And like with most vanity projects - which especially if you considered the content of the last project it felt like it was - it was made to serve the fanbase and nobody else, but I had to think she could try a little harder for some originality than this!

But hey, apparently she's still putting out projects with this being part two, and folks kept on requesting it even despite the last review, and it is short enough to make for a quick review while I crunch through meatier projects, so what did we get Singular: Act II?

Honestly folks... there's not much here to say, again. I've said before this is the sort of project that would be destined for the Trailing Edge and I'm only really covering it here because it's short and I already covered the first act, but I'm not sure Sabrina Carpenter is going to give me a lot of material going forward. Because this really does feel like a sequel project that nevertheless follows in the exact same vein as the original: maybe a little better, but suffering a broad lack of originality and remaining the sort of flimsy and derivative project that's chasing trends in pop rather than finding distinctive territory.

And let me make this clear: a big part of this remains Sabrina Carpenter, who once again is stepping onto the scene with pop vocals that feel really interchangeable: husky, more pitchy than they should be, and chasing more of Camila Cabello's tones than ever - which given how inconsistent and underwhelming of a singer she is might not be the best act to follow! Granted, some of the trap-leaning multi-tracking and vocal overdubs seems kind of close to what Ariana Grande has been doing, and that is a step in a better direction... until you realize that if you're comparing presence or vocal mixing or any level of production quality, even if I was lukewarm on Ariana's last album thank u, next, it's a different weight class than Sabrina Carpenter! And being derivative isn't the big problem here; it's being starkly underwhelming in comparison, where when Saweetie steps onto the mic for 'I Can't Stop Me', Carpenter might have a slightly better mic pickup but nowhere close to the charisma or hunger, and that's a problem when you're trying to inspire some sort of unique personality or emotional investment. Now to her credit, if you're going to lean into spare sensuality and cooing R&B vocals like on 'Tell Em' or the desaturated ballad 'Exhale', it's a more natural and inviting tone for her - certainly in comparison with the overly compressed pickups on her attempts at dance songs - and I do think there are more natural-sounding vocal lines here... in comparison with a ton of the production, which sounds devoid of melody, canned, and cheap, especially on the lead-off single 'Pushing 20' that of course was produced by Oak! Yes, it's more understandable given what's popular now, but I didn't Ariana off the hook for this and I sure as hell am not going to do it for Sabrina Carpenter, who somehow has even less melody to work with off of rickety drum machines, by the numbers trap percussion, and whatever fragment of melody dragged along the way, and in some cases like the opener 'In My Bed', for the hook they actually seem to be stripping away interesting tune for a chopped up mess that sounds like an attempt to make a Zedd song! And it keeps happening: the warped clunker of 'Take Off All Your Cool', the oily desaturation of 'Pushing 20', the pianos and snap beat of 'Take You Back', all of these songs seems to believe that Sabrina Carpenter's vocals can carry a song without a stronger instrumental tune, and it's absolutely the wrong fit! Hell, it's one reason the closing song 'Looking At Me' could have worked: that pulsating beat and more prominent horn line might be trying to go for a Latin vibe that doesn't seem to fit her at all, but at least there's a tune to it!

But this takes us to the content, and where Sabrina Carpenter once again loses me in a big way: because I can't buy into her flighty rushes of ego whatsoever. See, swaggering arrogance can be a tough sell even for the best of artists - hell, where Ariana Grande lost me on thank u, next were the songs that fed into haughty, L.A. party girl snobbery, and while the seeds of this were planted on Sabrina Carpenter's last album, they're just evident and unlikable here. I'm already not fond of her choppy, undercooked writing style where she won't even try to rhyme the first few lines of her first song - 'would' does not rhyme with 'gone' - but when you get a song like 'Pushing 20', where she says she's 'got no time for others', even if she's referring to over-projecting assholes it's not a look I believe she can sell. And similar attitudes run through songs like 'I Can't Stop Me', which is all about flossing and luxuriating in the L.A. party scene as she indulges guys who are bad for her, but even if the sole appeal of the song is living vicariously through that lens, is it really a good idea to embrace the 'I can't stop' mentality we last saw on 'We Can't Stop' from Miley Cyrus, just minus the populism? But that ego-trip doesn't go away either, from the capricious on-and-off of 'I'm Fakin' to the ex-boyfriend kiss-off where she runs through all the time she's wasted and thinks she'd rather have a new pair of shoes, to the final song where she tries to get this guy to dance with the reassurance that nobody will care that much about him, because all eyes will be on her. Again, it's not the ego that's the real problem, it's Sabrina Carpenter's inability to sell it or make seem interesting - maybe her target audience is absorbing this better, but to me this feels hollow and cheap and self-serving. Even some of the "love songs" here have that veneer, with 'Tell Em' focusing less on the connection and more about how they shouldn't tell people - while acting like she totally wants to spill everything, and while we do get songs where she's trying to take more of a breather and process things, they don't really lead to any sort of revelation or insight - or unique personality.

But look, we're now four full-length albums in for Sabrina Carpenter, and it's hard for me to consider them as anything but vanity projects at this point - they don't add to the mainstream pop landscape in any significant way, the sound and delivery are by-the-numbers, the hooks are underwhelming, and none of the writing stands out in a good way. Honestly, I question what this even adds if you're part of Sabrina Carpenter's fanbase, because this album repeats a lot of similar ideas and arcs to the last project but with a slightly updated sound - that's it! Even if we're looking at the sorry state of mainstream pop right now on the Hot 100, there's more likable and unique personality and flair than what we get here, which might be slightly better than the last one, but only barely, which is why I'm giving this a 5/10 and only recommended to the fans - and even then... look, y'all can do better. Otherwise, you can move on.

1 comment:

  1. Bruh please please can u review Iggy Azalea's sophomore album "In My Defense" released few days ago!