The High Road to Nowhere
Having worked in music retail for several years, I’ve come across multiple people—even during the advent of iTunes—that simply didn’t want to buy an album because of the fear that the one song they heard on the radio was good, and the rest would be terrible. I’ve steered people towards greatness and away from crap several times, but shortly after “Since U Been Gone” nearly re-defined pop music in a rock context in 2004, pop albums, on the whole, have been actually getting better. It’s like pop music in the ‘80s all over again, only now the charts aren’t controlled by artists, but by songwriters and—more than ever—producers.
So it’s no surprise that the cover sticker of 15-year-old diva JoJo’s sophomore effort proudly trumpets the presence of noted rap producers Swizz Beatz and Top 40 go-to-guy Scott Storch. On her 2004 self-titled debut, she had upstart producers like Soulshock giver her beats that were, surprisingly, good. The tell-off lead single “Leave (Get Out)” was quite good, even if it was a little bit odd that you were receiving relationship advice from a 13-year-old girl. Yet even filler like “The Happy Song” was actually enjoyable, catchy, and sort of fun. They were actual songs, not just a litany of beats arranged around JoJo’s quite-good voice. Could she actually release a true-to-life good album? Would The High Road be the next Bodyguard Soundtrack, or even Breakaway for that matter?
The answer is simply no. We’re back to the days of a really good single and an unholy amount of filler.
It’s really shocking how bland this album is. From the most generic cover in the world to one of the most shockingly low-energy opening tracks in recent memory (the Storch-produced “This Time”), there really isn’t much to recommend. Certainly, the lead single “Too Little Too Late” is appropriately melodramatic, covering the exact same ground that “Leave (Get Out)” covered but without the angry chorus (if it ain’t broke …). It’s something that Alanis Morrissette might have recorded for her last I’m-no-longer-angry-and-therefore-am-content-with-plain-ballads album. As repackaged as it is, it actually has something that the rest of the album is sorely lacking: personality.
What’s particularly sad is how all the big names that are brought in happen to deliver some of their worst work. Immediately following the bland Storch opener, Swizz Beatz shames his own name with the awkwardly titled “The Way You Do Me”—a club track that would have been hot at roughly never any point in history. Possibly even trumping that track are the pitiful Dianne Warren ballads brought in at the end. At times her blend of pop schmaltz is fine (Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” remains a guilty pleasure to this day), and even the idea of gospel-tinged closer (“Note to God”) would play to JoJo’s gospel-singing upbringing. Unfortunately, that song is just bland (shock and surprise). To top it off, when Warren feeds JoJo an awkward line like “If you could see the one I see when I see you / You’d know how lucky you are to be you” from the rather unexceptional “Exceptional,” you’re reduced more to cringing than agreeing.
In the need to try to please everyone, the hip-hop influenced tracks at the top are balanced by the wannabe adult contemporary staples at the end, including another oddly titled ditty, “How to Touch a Girl”—with lyrics so generic you’ve probably already written them. Yet the album gets its rank for having one of the most absolutely ridiculous out-of-nowhere samples in recent memory: Toto’s immortal classic “Africa”. Such a dubious honor goes to a track called “Anything.” Though such a sample choice may be odd, it would be justified if they actually used it to good effect. Instead, they simply sample the instrumental part leading up the verse (the part with the xylophones), add a synth-line in the chorus… and that’s really about it. It’s one of the laziest uses of sampling this critic has ever heard. Ever.
It’s sad when songs simply drift through one ear and out the other (as is the case with “Like That”). It’s especially sad when it appears that some effort was put into a true blue pop album (though not a lot), and it proves to be one of the most vapid, surface-level, uninteresting releases in recent memory. This is the album that everyone has warned you about: the great single track with an army of filler in its wake. There’s nothing wrong with pop music when it’s done right. The consequences for doing it wrong (as in this case) are pretty dire: you’re simply forgotten.