[19 April 2011]
All the way back in January, Jessie J came out on the top of the pop pile in the BBC’s Sound of 2011 poll. In doing so, she trumped artists like James Blake (who came second), Jamie Woon (who came fourth), and Warpaint (who didn’t manage to make the illustrious top five). Now, everybody in the world realises that this list is a commercially-motivated excuse for Britain’s music critics and industry figures to whip their know-it-all noggins side to side. But they don’t always get it right. After all, who remembers the Dead 60s, who came seventh in 2005? How about Kubb – ninth in 2006? The Rumble Strips, surely. They came tenth in 2007. No? Thought not. The sheer arbitrariness of the list defies the gravity of belief, and it’s clearly been mismanaged this year.
Jessie J is from the badlands where North East London eventually crashes into Essex; a maelstrom of sacrificed consonants and speed garage. She’s sort of a veteran—singing since the age of 11 and hustling towards a professional career since about 2005. After Gut Records went bankrupt, she was left in a music industry no-man’s-land. In these terms, at least, her fate is not unlike that suffered by Robyn for years and years. But, since then, she has managed to pick up the pieces of her career, writing “Party in the USA” for tween queen Miley Cyrus and various tracks for man’s man (read: professional woman-beating, room-trashing, domestic violencing misogynist) Chris Brown.
Who You Are, Jessie J’s debut album, features material recorded between 2005 and 2011, a production team who have already worked with Pink, Fergie, and Sugababes, and two singles that reaches the UK Top Ten in “Do It Like a Dude” (which reached #2) and “Price Tag” which got to number one and which features genre freegan B.o.B. Unfortunately, though, for an album with such a name, it seems to have little idea of what’s going on. Is it a pop album aimed at bratty teenage consumers in McDonalds bling? Is it an R&B album meant to display Jessie’s trumpet-like oesophagus, fulfilling her post-BRIT school pop-star destiny? It attempts to present a convincing case for both, but ends up as a largely jumbled, bitchy brew of pop tunes hollered with a loutish scowl.
Jessie J is certainly better at making salacious, leering pop-hop choruses (“Price Tag”, “Abracadabra”, “Do It Like a Dude”) than she is at fitting into a diva ball gown (“Casualty of Love”) or giddily anticipating the Age of Aquarius (“Rainbow”, “L.O.V.E”, “Stand Up”).
“Price Tag” has a very fetching sunshine pop chorus, but it points towards its own supposed authenticity just a little bit too eagerly. A sweetly skanking reggae-pop song, it seems to be about its own propensity to shed the skin of the music industry, snake-like, spending its time as a happy pauper with a forked tongue. Where does irony fit in, then, if it has managed to reach the top of the charts? “Abracadabra” has a high-street-retail vendor verse, all ticking funk guitars and deep house electric pianos in a late-‘90s R&B coulee. But, again, its chorus saves it from sheer banality, and it sounds a bit like the cast of Glee girlishly performing early Bobby Brown material. The chorus to “Do It Like a Dude” is, as we already knew, chunky and cheeky, with some infectious chilli-infused pre-choral warbling. However, that doesn’t make its liberal, and perhaps dubious, use of Jamaican patois any easier to swallow. It swims in a thug-lite brew and has a pretty nasty aftertaste.
These three tracks are pretty much Who You Are’s saving graces, but they can neither put a sock in the rest of the album’s vapidity, and they raise the pertinent question of why both “Casualty of Love” and “Nobody’s Perfect” have been chosen over “Abracadabra” as singles. “Rainbow”, “L.O.V.E”, and “Stand Up” all sound largely the same, each peddling the most dated sort of esoteric soul-child spirituality. It’s like listening to an ageing Wiccan tell you their life story at a bus-stop—you listen out of politeness, but you know full well that someone who reads palms for a hobby isn’t necessarily the sole authority on the nature of the universe. “Nobody’s Perfect”, meanwhile, is Beyonce’s “Halo” without any of the grandeur, the emotional-scene-soundtracking, push towards pop-transcendence, and “Big White Room” is just Mariah Carey locked in a padded cell.
But “Who’s Laughing Now” is criminally awful. It’s a frankly callous attempt to combine the low-self-esteem-survivor-story sentiments of various Pink songs and “Freak Like Me” and “Ugly” by Sugababes. Now, while this isn’t an intrinsically a bad thing, with “Who’s Laughing Now” it’s less inspiring or life-affirming than it is the sound of Jessie J’s personal public screaming match with the spectre of the archetypal High School Bully.
Who You Are tries very hard to swagger, but it trips over its own feet and continues to self-consciously limp on through thirteen tracks, as if to suggest that’s its hobbling is its normal walk. It has some serious pacing problems caused by a tracklisting clearly decided with the innovative use of eenie-meenie-minie-mo, and to put it bluntly: It’s just not very interesting, yet alone subversive or challenging. Of course, Jessie J has made a pop album here, so we can’t really blame her for that. The real problem is, though, that it makes her victory in the Sound of 2011 poll an even more bitter event for people who are more interested in music than someone else’s insipid dreams of stardom.