I really loved Frankie J’s first album, especially his huge single “Don’t Wanna Try”—I thought he had originality and drive and desire to go with his flawless high tenor voice. I was really rooting for this former Kumbia King to knock it out of the park on this one. The One is not a bad little pop record, but I guess I was wrong about his originality and drive and desire. It turns out all he wants to be is the Hispanic Usher. Fortunately, I love Usher, and so does America.
I fully expect this album will be huge, mostly thanks to the opening single, which is eight flavors of brilliant in a wafer cone. “Obsession (No Es Amor)” is a 3:45 slab of pop ambiguity the way they used to do it in the old days: in the verses, he’s convinced that he’s in love with us, but in the chorus, he tells himself that it’s just an illusion and an obsession, and then wonders what love really is after all. Then he loves how we freaky like that, and then his partner Baby Bash comes in to drawl a laconic Houston-style rap about his superfly beauty queen, to whom his corazón belongs. It might not make a lot of internal sense, but it’s sublime anyway, all done to some beautiful Latin guitar and conga work, some extremely floaty synth-string drones, strange chimes and keyboard blips, a hint of acid-rock guitar… aw, damn, I might be in love with this song, except that it’s maybe more like an obsession, but it feels like love, what’s wrong with me, etc.
But then we get right into Usher-rip territory with the title track. Here, the pretty-good female vocal trio 3LW comes in, cooing softly back and forth with a whole ocean of Frankie Js about how they’re all so superfly and so sexeee; the stopstart beat and the vocal filigrees are straight outta Confessions, and the sentiments could be on virtually any other pop record in the world. To enjoy this, one has to put aside the logical problem of how this is a song about the One but he’s singing back and forth with Three, because there is more in heaven and earth than in your philosophy, my friend. The big hurdle is when Frankie gives the game away by saying “You’re my boo” at the end of the song, at which point you’ll just go “Oh yeah THAT’s where I heard that song before!”
Then we get to an actual theft. “How to Deal” is, basically, “Burn”. Same guitar riff, same vocal pattern, same tempo, and, if one tracks lyrics, even the same sentiments, except that here the protagonist has dumped the love of his life for his career, and now she’s with someone else, and it hurts so bad. Actually, I guess it’s more like Bubba Sparxxx’s “She Tried” on that score, but it’s still Urshurr with a Tejano accent, and it’s blatant as all hell. Which, again, is fine, for what it is. But Bryan-Michael Cox’s production is BEGGING for people to say “Well, it’s just not ‘Burn’, is it?” And, no, it isn’t.
I’ve long gotten over the whole “an album needs to be produced by only one person” bugaboo, but I think the guiding hand of Happy Perez could have helped here a little more. Not to say that Soulshock and Karlin’s Kanye-lite approach on “Without You” isn’t nice, or that Mario Winans doesn’t actually bring some mid-1980s smooth funk heat to “Just Can’t Say It’s Love”, or that Steve Russell or Night & Day or Malcolm Flythe and Jimi Kendrix or Frankie J himself aren’t good second- or third-line urban producers, but that makes eight different sounds on a ten-track CD, and the album doesn’t sound like anyone was really behind it.
Each song sounds good, individually. “In the Moment” is a hot bass-heavy semi-ballad, “Story of My Life” is faux-Babyface, and “On the Floor” is a sweet little dance song fueled by a serviceable/corny Paul Wall rap (“Can I borrow a map / I’m getting lost in your eyes”) with lyrics like “get low” and a vocal melody nicked from the same schoolyard taunt that Sly and Lisa Lisa already stole from); they are all good, and all could be hits, but there’s no connection to any of it, other than the fact that Frankie J can sing the paint off buildings.
I guess I thought that Frankie J was a more original—or at least more ambitious—songwriter than he turns out to be. I think that he’s best when paired with Happy Perez, and I think that having all these other producers on board makes it seem like he just called a bunch of people and said “hook me up with a track” and they did and boom, an album: 40 minutes flat, with “Don’t Wanna Try” and “Suga Suga” and the Spanish version of “Obsession” appended.
And, again, nothing wrong with that. Hell, this is PopMatters, right? So: POP MATTERS, at least to me, and to millions of Frankie J fans. And this is pop, so it’s fine for a record to do what this does. I just need to get my head around the idea that Frankie J is not that big a deal after all. Just a little period of adjustment for your friendly neighborhood music writer.