Jessie J’s ‘Sweet Talker’: Album Review
“I allowed other people to come in and push my control and make me uncomfortable,” Jessie J said of her third studio album Sweet Talker (out today, ). Based on what happened this summer, that move hardly seems like a risk.
Hiring reliable, bold-faced producers and songwriters is often a fail-safe move in pop, and with her sophomore album Alive being restricted to a UK-only release, Jessie J’s decision doesn’t seem like an exception. Along came “Bang Bang,” her Max Martin-assisted, high-octane pop hit that features Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj. Currently a Top 10 single, it arrived right on trend during a season ruled by all-female collaborations, although with all its gospel inflections it seemed to cater most to Jessie J’s comfort zone and newfound role as leading diva.
“Bang Bang” was effective enough to help the singer stage a stateside comeback. But the all-star team (Diplo, The-Dream, Tricky Stewart) behind the toned-down Sweet Talker failed to tackle the problem that first pervaded her schizophrenic 2011 debut, Who You Are: Vocal tricks aside, Jessie J doesn’t have a clear sense of identity.
That is ironic, considering how often Jessie J praises herself for being a standout star. Perhaps the most convincing of these songs is opening track “Ain’t Been Done,” where her voice shifts from sing-rapping like past collaborator Dizzie Rascal to fluttering without much pause.
Jessie doesn’t keep her promise, though. In “Masterpiece,” she has the nerve to assert that she’s not able to color inside the lines – “If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down” – to what sounds like a basic template for a mid-tempo, ’00s-era pop song. “Loud” has her backed by violinist/dance crossover artist Lindsey Stirling, but only to whine through generalized, so-called truths about haters (“They won’t stop until they goddamn tear you down”). More so than on Who You Are‘s spunky “Who’s Laughing Now,” she simply sounds like she’s overreacting to any form of criticism.
Elsewhere, Jessie sings of love and heartbreak while seeming timid. She may raise her voice in the melodramatic “Fire,” but her insistence on using an extended metaphor (“He is the flame, he draws me in / That burns from within, it’s a pain so sweet”) makes her anguish seem impersonal. The Funkadelic-sampling “Seal Me with a Kiss” features De La Soul, though the founding jazz-rap trio’s goofball enthusiasm only shows how put-on J’s coyness sounds by comparison.
Revisiting Who You Are and then hearing Sweet Talker does make it clear that, actually, Jessie J is a more thoughtful performer than she was before. Now she pulls off songs like album highlight “Keep Us Together,” a ’90s R&B throwback that belongs on the same old-school playlists containing Puff Daddy‘s “I’ll Be Missing You” and Tupac’s “Changes.” Jessie’s straightforward performance radiates with nervous excitement, making it a rare moment on Sweet Talker where she doesn’t try to maintain her distance.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Christina Lee