‘Voicenotes’: Charlie Puth’s funky F-you record is gold (review)

Critics hated Charlie Puth’s first album: it is currently the 15th worst-reviewed album of all time on Metacritic. So the 26-year old can breathe a sigh of relief with his new offering, Voicenotes, which dropped on May 11. This second studio album is actually good, to say the least.

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Two years ago, his debut album Nine Track Mind was rush-released in the quiet month of January to capitalize on the success of the singer’s monster single, “See You Again”, which had topped the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks in 2015. The unprecedented success of the song was a double-edged sword for Charlie, who had to race to put together an album while the Fast and Furious soundtrack single still sizzled.

Critics loathed that album for its songwriting and production, finding Charlie a juvenile, amateur artist over-relying on cheesy love ballads. On hindsight, even the singer himself isn’t a fan of his first body of work: “that album wasn’t me at all,” he told Billboard in February. He gave only one nod to his duet with Selena Gomez, “We Don’t Talk Anymore”; it was the album’s only Top 10 hit anyway.

Fortunately, second time’s already a charm for the now-better-seasoned artist, who spend adequate time producing his new album Voicenotes entirely on his own in the comfort of his home studio.

The world had a preview of the album as early as over a year ago when its lead single “Attention” premiered.

A beat-driven midtempo jam, an accusatory Charlie sings in falsetto, “you just want attention, you don’t want my heart”, completely left field of the sweet, generous persona from his previous album. The singer described “Attention” as a “mean song”, and even admitted it was his F-you to everyone who had pigeonholed his music, including his label.

The song bested “We Don’t Talk Anymore” as Charlie’s highest-charting single as a lead artist, breaking the Top 5 in August last year. The Voicenotes album now had a bonafide hit, even if critics denounce it when it comes out later like they did its older brother.

Initially conceived as a orchestral ballad with a higher key, “Attention” was toned down into a funky, urban track: its sound would lay the groundwork for the forthcoming album.

Voicenotes was primed to drop on January 2018, exactly two years after Nine Track Mind, but last-minute changes to the record, including a much-needed album cover reshoot, delayed its release till May.

In the meantime, Charlie issued several singles to satiate listeners, starting with “How Long”, a funkier cousin to “Attention” that even coos at the post-chorus with a melismatic “ooh”.

This same post-chorus melisma would be employed repeatedly through the album. It resurfaces with the whimsical “Boy” (“how dare you treat me just like a boy?”), upbeat cheater-bashing “Somebody Told Me” (“somebody told me that you got another lover you’ve been giving it to”),  as well as “Slow It Down”, a disco bop that could’ve easily made Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotions.

This funky 80’s R&B sound prevails throughout Voicenotes, accentuated in the album’s third single. A collaboration with Kehlani, “Done For Me”, is an undeniable throwback to 1986’s “What Have You Done For Me Lately” by Janet Jackson. “Tell me what you’ve done for me,” Charlie sings in the groovy chorus, reprising the exasperation of “Attention” while a gooey bass line echoes.

The F-you demeanor of “Attention” also informs the album’s opener, the rapid guitar-strummed “The Way I Am” influenced by heavy metal band System of a Down’s “Violent Pornography”. The singer references his post-success anxiety in the first verse: “everybody’s trying to be famous and I’m just tryna find a place to hide.” “I don’t even know how to explain this. I don’t think I’m even gonna try. / You can either hate me or love me, but that’s just the way I am,” he declares to his naysayers.

As Voicenotes is produced solely by the singer, its tracks stem from the same sonic roots, making the album a cohesive body of funk-pop jams, albeit a tad repetitive.

There are some exceptions to the pacing, like with “Change”, a piano duet with James Taylor accompanied by light finger snaps. The single is social commentary (“Why are we looking down on our sisters and brothers? / Why can’t we just get along?”), his obvious go-to from now on for benefit gigs. “Patient” is a heartfelt plea to a former love in the form of a crooning ballad: “please be patient with me. I know I’m not what you need.”

Only two downtempos falls short for me: Charlie’s collaboration with Boyz II Men, “If You Leave Me Now”, a promotional single recorded in pure a capella that borders on stifling, and the album’s closer, “Through It All”, an intended empowering ballad that insufferably “ooh”-s its way through yet again. On the flip side, “Empty Cups” is the album’s forgettable uptempo, sequenced as the penultimate track.

Voicenotes would have been close to perfect if the record cuts after its first eleven tracks. Regardless, its tracks are concise bops with just enough attitude to unveil the authentic, likeable artist within Charlie Puth. Gone are the days of Nine Track Mind boy-next-door pandering; no one bought that anyway, both figuratively and literally. Voicenotes is the singer’s first pot of gold (I mean, it really is. The album has already been certified Gold thanks to streaming.)

Rating: 4/5

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