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Posts posted by TommyExhale

  1. Can Jonas recreate the unexpected delight of his last album?

    NJ Last Year Review

    Last year may have been complicated for Nick Jonas, but the verdict on his new album is pretty simple: you ask, he delivers.

    Nick Jonas’ second studio effort (third, if you count his childhood debut released before his brothers joined in on his career ambitions) doesn’t impress nor disappoint; it simply entertains and meets the expectations its self-titled predecessor established in 2014. It’s an unsurprising but unabashedly solid pop album, replicated the marriage between slick R&B with poppy dance beats that made his last album an unexpected pleasure. And while the subject matter is a little more personal and specific this time around (he mines his often disregarded relationship with Miss USA Olivia Culpo for material), Last Year Was Complicated is a seamless transition from where Jonas left us last.

    It’s refreshing that Jonas chooses to stick with what works at a time when many of his pop peers seek reinvention so desperately that they’re willing to sacrifice authenticity. In stark contrast to recent releases like Fifth Harmony’s 7/27, Jonas seems right at home on this record. Whether he wants to sound wounded while destroying furniture and memories on “Chainsaw” or cocky and seductive on “The Difference”, his versatile falsetto is always effective.

    Most importantly, he sounds like he’s having fun. Jonas has never been particularly convincing as the swaggering, chest puffing character he invented in his music, and no amount of playful crotch fondling can convince me that he’s anyone but the wet blanket drooped over himself in the backseat on a recent installment of James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, but he’s never had more charisma than when he quotes Beyoncé and asserts, “Ah, shit! Throw some bacon on it,” in the same breath.


    Musically, he takes few risks, only going off course with the tropical house elements on “Close” and the 90s dance beats on “Comfortable”. While his contemporaries like Zayn and Ariana Grande have spent 2016 straying off trendy paths in favor of more artistic pastures, Jonas chases hits. The problem is there really aren’t any.

    Every track feels like an angled attempt to recreate his breakout singles “Chains” and “Jealous”. In fact, the men responsible for those songs, Jason Evigan and Sir Nolan, respectively, are behind the majority of the songs here. Together, they craft songs that could have easily been handled by the Justins of pop music. “Voodoo” captures the second-hand magic of a Timberlake-Timbaland collaboration while “Touch”, with its catchy guitar-driven melody, has Bieber written all over it.

    Unfortunately, none of these songs truly duplicate the bangers they’re emulating. In fact, Last Year doesn’t have any sort of bona fide hit to anchor it. The aforementioned lead single “Close”, which features Tove Lo, is about as lukewarm as the intimacy problems discussed in its lyrics and the Big Sean-assisted “Good Girls” feels as dated as its slut-shaming message (“When did all these good girls decide to be bad? / Dancing up on the table, getting back at your dad”). Even still, the album doesn’t need an obvious radio smasher to be enjoyable when it has a steady stream of gratifying tracks.

    NJ Last Year Review 2

    Last Year is made even more intriguing by the fact that nobody seemed particularly invested in Jonas’ relationship with Culpo when it happened, and certainly nobody cares now. Jonas can be as vague or specific, as mournful or bitter as he wants, a luxury he would not have had on a record about his split from an ex like Miley Cyrus. “I never met a beauty queen I didn’t like,” he croons on “Comfortable”. Aside from that direct reference to Culpo and her crown, the album revels in anonymity as Jonas zips through the stages of a breakup. He celebrates the single life and his newfound personal freedom on “Bacon”, but on “Unhinged”, a ballad with shades of John Mayer, he takes responsibility for letting their relationship sink: “You’re not the first to try and diagnose what’s wrong with me / I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hard to please.”

    Jonas didn’t make any grand promises with Last Year Was Complicated, and so his latest release doesn’t disappoint. Even without any standout tracks that seem destined for radio overplay, the plush album offers a consistently enjoyable listening experience. Jonas may not yet have what it takes to be a pop king, but he has just enough to hang in there.

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  2. Does Fifth Harmony have enough girl power to fuel their sophomore album?

    Fifth Harmony Review 1

    Fifth Harmony underwhelms on their hotly anticipated album.

    One song into Fifth Harmony’s second album and it’s clear: you’ve heard this before. The bouncy horns in the opening track “That’s My Girl” instantly recall their breakout hit “Worth It” while its lyrics boost the sassy, confident message of sisterhood with which the girl group has become so closely identified (“Destiny said you got to get up and get it / Get mad independent, don’t you ever forget it”). Unfortunately, familiarity isn’t a big problem that Fifth Harmony faces on 7/27, named for the date they were thrown together, One Direction style, on The X Factor after unsuccessfully auditioning as individual artists. Despite the title’s homage to the their roots as a band, the girls largely abandon the music styles and lyrical themes that made them so alluring upon their debut.

    Given their manufactured origins in reality television (and the fact that they didn’t actually win that competition), it’s remarkable how globally successful Fifth Harmony has become in such a short time. They are routinely mentioned in the same breath as other massively popular girl groups like Destiny’s Child, Dixie Chicks, and the Pussycat Dolls. But their triumphs are not without merit. The five girls who make up the group—Ally Brooke, Camila Cabello, Dinah Jane, Lauren Jauregui, and Normani Kordei—are each gifted vocalists, and their zippy debut album Reflection was surprisingly fun, savvy, and slickly produced.

    Fifth Harmony Review 2

    One would hope 7/27 would build upon that trend, but Fifth Harmony’s second effort fails to deliver. The girls cast away the youthful energy and contagious pep that defined Reflection in favor of midtempo tracks that are designed to convince us how much they have matured in the sixteen months between albums. And while some growth is welcomed, their deliberate diversion away from electro-R&B and toward tropical house music, a la Rihanna, is what truly kills the spirit of the album. The chief culprit in this misinformed genre shift is “All in My Head (Flex)”, a breezy but stupefied dance track complete with a regrettable cameo from Fetty Wap. It’s a rare moment in which the group’s swagger is annoying rather than empowering.

    The vast majority of the tracks don’t encumber the album as noticeably, but they are certainly forgettable. “I Lied” sounds like a bastardized leftover track from JoJo’s recent foray into dance music while “Squeeze” is as cheesy as it is numbing. 7/27 also suffers from a lack of true ballads; even when songs like “Dope” and “No Way” slow down the tempo, the girls seem more content to “chill” than offer soulful interludes and highlight their dynamic vocals, much like they did with “We Know” on Reflection.

    Bright moments of relief come from the catchy hook and playful lyrics of the infectious lead single “Work From Home” (“You don’t gotta go to work / Let my body do the work”). “Write on Me” is an enjoyably tender approach to the album’s breezy dance inclinations, even if it feels a bit out of place. But only “Not That Kinda Girl” manages to capture the group’s charm that is so sorely lacking elsewhere. The earworm of a song’s best quality is not the delectable verse from Missy Elliott (although, that’s usually an album highlight, no matter who the main artist is), but its unexpectedly adept ode to the late Prince.


    Still, even on the strongest tracks, the album’s heart sounds phoned in. The singers themselves, who—despite the name of their band—don’t harmonize so much as blend their vocals together into the same note, sound bored by the material. They’re dull even when promoting a carefree lifestyle of wealth and fun on “The Life”. (Is this the life? I’m wholly unconvinced.) Perhaps it’s an intentional ploy to come off more sophisticated, or maybe their publicly acknowledged creative differences have forced them to compromise musically to unsatisfying ends. Only Cabello, whose chipper, breathy vocals also make her the most distinctive singer in the group, sounds like she’s enjoying herself, so it’s no wonder she has the most solos.

    7/27 doesn’t sound like a sophomore album improving upon what its predecessor did so well. Instead, it seems like a ploy for credibility. But by chasing trends and repressing their vivacious bravada, Fifth Harmony loses what made them so endearing in the first place. This isn’t to say fans won’t be pleased; there’s enough here to keep even the most passionate of Harmonizers happy, and several of the tracks are smartly designed for extensive play on radio and in the club. But 7/27 and its revamped pseudo-maturity won’t win the girls any new converts. Still, the women of Fifth Harmony have already built their collective career on defying the odds; a subpar album is disappointing, but it certainly won’t derail the world’s premier girl group.

    Thoughts? Let us know in Exhale.

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  3. Ariana is pop music's latest good girl gone bad, but can she pull it off?


    Danger has never been so inviting.

    “Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” Ariana Grande asks on Dangerous Woman. This provocative inquiry is not only sure to be a Tinder profile hallmark for months to come, but it also perfectly describes the singer’s third studio album. Grande isn’t quite yet free of her sugary high-ponytailed image (after all, the most dangerous thing she’s ever done is lick a donut), but she explores uncharted, sexier waters so successfully on this album that she has more than earned its formidable title. She capitalizes on the paradox of innocence and sexuality with more fervor and credence than anyone since Britney Spears, and that’s the highest praise I had ever imagined myself giving to anyone, especially Miss Grande. But I’ll do her one better: Dangerous Woman is likely the strongest pop release we’ll hear in 2016, and it’s certainly the best of her short but very prolific career.

    There are different kinds of dangerous in Ariana’s world, and she tackles many of them on this release. She’s a predator, craving a scandalous hookup on the club jam “Into You” and savoring her lover’s body on the disco-tinged standout song “Greedy”. On the title track, which is nothing short of an ode to Christian Grey, she’s a good girl who wants so badly to go bad. And on the twinkly album opener “Moonlight”, she rivals Lana Del Rey in who can make a toxic relationship sound dreamier and more romantic, breathlessly cooing “He’s so bossy, he makes me dance.” It’s hard to tell which is closer to the real Ariana because she portrays all these personas with such surprising vehemence and authenticity, and you know she didn’t learn that from her days on Nickelodeon.


    The sexually liberated nature of the album perfectly complements the singer’s public persona; in the last year, Grande has garnered praise for speaking out against sexism and gender inequality, and on this album, she seems to equate dangerous with confident and independent. But as enticingly enigmatic as this femme fatale character is, the album is noticeably void of any truly autobiographical elements. It’s anybody guess as to which songs might be about her breakup with Big Sean, for example. And that seems to be the point. Ariana seems fully in control, showing us exactly what she wants us to see. She’s chosen to separate the music from her celebrity, both the good side (routinely calling out her prejudiced Instagram followers) and the bad (“I hate America”).

    Sonically, her elusive personality works in this album’s favor. Unlike on her sophomore My Everything, which tried and failed to be, well, everything all at once, Dangerous Woman feels cohesive and finds strength in its genre experimentation. Grande avoids trends and instead grasps a solid through line with the aid of mega producer Max Martin, who has his hand in almost every track. So when she imbues “Side to Side” with reggae music or slides into a 90s dance groove on “Be Alright”, it not only works, it elevates the album in ways that feel organic and unique.

    Still, Grande pulls no punches; just when it seems like she has taken every turn possible without derailing her well-oiled musical machine, she makes another detour. “Sometimes” reveals shades of Ariana’s retro-R&B past, beautifully straddling both the campfire and the club, while “I Don’t Care” transports the pint-sized pop diva to a gloomy lounge.

    One Grande staple that has remained on Dangerous Woman is the singer’s affinity for collaborations. The album is padded with several high-profile guests, and while her earlier career was dependent on features from artists like the Weeknd and Iggy Azalea, they seem largely unnecessary here. Lil Wayne and Future take their respective turns on “Let Me Love You” and “Everyday” as the bad boy object of Ariana’s affections, but they offer some of the album’s more forgettable moments. And while Macy Gray’s unexpected appearance on the soulful torch song “Leave Me Lonely” and Nicki Minaj’s bouncy verse on “Side to Side” give the album more versatility, Ariana proves that she works best alone.


    Of course, it’s easy for an artist to coast on her vocals. Featured singers will always feel excessive and an ambiguous personality will always be easily overlooked when the voice is that good. She has become so distinctive through her radio dominance that even the once-apt comparisons to Mariah Carey are inadmissible now. Even so, as outstanding as her pipes are (and for the record, she’s never sounded better), listening to fifteen tracks straight when she only exercises vocal restraint on a handful of occasions can be exhausting. Similarly, it’s forgivable when you can’t quite make out what she’s saying on the radio, but when her unintelligible truncations span the course of an entire album, it easily wears on anyone who regards proper enunciation as a linguistic must.

    Dangerous Woman proves that Ariana Grande is here to stay. For the first time in her career, she has given up trying to please others and finally seems to be making music for herself. I don’t know if that makes her dangerous, but it certainly makes her a pop force to be reckoned with.

    Thoughts? Let us know in Exhale.

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  4. The sunny bopper is a serious contender for song of the summer.


    He can't stop the feeling and neither can we.

    It's been a while since we've heard something new from Justin Timberlake, and although his most recent musical hiatus pales in comparison to the infamous seven-year break he once took between albums, the drought could not have ended soon enough. "Can't Stop the Feeling" is the summer earworm we've been waiting for.

    No stranger to retro dance influences, Justin slides into a disco groove, singing, "I got that sunshine in my pocket, got that good soul in my feet." The breezy upbeat tune is sure to blow up radio airwaves and draw people onto the floor to "just dance, dance, dance." It's unabashedly simple and cheerful, and although far more radio- and family-friendly than his most recent efforts, "Can't Stop the Feeling" sits comfortably in his catalog, which is nearly free of anomalies or misses.

    Unsurprisingly, pop geniuses Max Martin and Shellback produced the shimmery song, which serves as the lead single off the soundtrack for Dreamworks' Trolls. Timberlake joins the likes of Rihanna, Shakira, and Britney Spears as the latest pop star to lend his musical talents to an animated film. No word on whether or not Trolls itself will be any good, but "Can't Stop the Feeling" is most certainly a certified jam. Check out the music video, packed with cameos from the film's celebrity cast, and make your verdict.

    Thoughts? Let us know in Exhale.

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  5. She ain't your mama, but she's gunning for a comeback.


    Is JLo ready for a career renaissance?

    It seems like no other pop star has had to make as many comebacks as Jennifer Lopez, who debuted her latest single effort on the American Idol series finale Thursday night. While “Ain’t Your Mama” doesn’t have enough oomph to revitalize her career the same way “On the Floor” did in 2011, it’s a welcomed reminder that JLo has been a consistent hitmaker for nearly two decades.

    “Ain’t Your Mama” checks all the right boxes we've come to expect from JLo: a peppy dance beat, a zesty Latin flare, and a sassy narrative. On the song, she laments that her lover has gotten “too comfortable,” proclaiming “I ain’t gonna be cooking all day, I ain’t your mama / I ain’t gonna do your laundry, I ain’t your mama.”

    With its urban influences, the power anthem has shades of Fifth Harmony, so it should come as no surprise that it was written by Meghan Trainor, who penned several tracks on the girl group’s debut album. Trainor’s influence over “Ain’t Your Mama” is ever present, from the pseudo-feminist theme to her backing vocals that bleed into JLo’s on the chorus. Still, Lopez keeps control of the song. She sounds better than ever here, as she's finally abandoned her lofty vocal ambitions and is using her reedy voice to her advantage.

    The dark cloud surrounding JLo’s return to the music scene, of course, is the fact that the song was co-written and produced by accused rapist Dr. Luke. If you’re able to separate the man from the music, “Ain’t Your Mama” is an enjoyable, breezy springtime jam. Otherwise, it can be a little unnerving to listen to a woman assert her independence and demand respect knowing that Dr. Luke is cashing a royalty check every time you do. Listen below and make your final verdict.

    Thoughts? Let us know in Exhale.

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