Jessie J’s weathered a lot of music-industry nonsense for someone bequeathed its never-ending support. She attended the BRIT School with Adele and Amy Winehouse, which for awhile in the U.K. seemed like a guarantee of two albums and a critical lovefest, but despite efforts spent on everything from industry awards to premature Video Music Awards facetime to make Jessie J happen, she didn’t happen – outside the U.K., that is. Despite teaming her with familiar producers like Claude Kelly (“Price Tag”) and Dr. Luke (“Domino”), her last album, Alive, wasn’t released in the United States. Though she’s moved to Los Angeles (in part to flee gossip), after three albums, the stateside market’s still not quite sure what to make of her.
Jessie J isn’t unaware of this: “As soon as I had a bob, my music sounded like Katy Perry’s. Now I’ve got short blonde hair, my music all of a sudden sounds like Miley’s and Pink’s,” she said last year. “As soon as I go dark, I’m sure I’ll have comparisons to Rihanna.” It’s hard not to feel for her. Though the ample criticism directed her way is mostly because her music isn’t good, the phenomenon is real and shared by nearly everyone — women, especially – who attempts to go from songwriter to star and finds they’ve peddled their sonic personality to the better-known stars who’ve cut their songs. Cornish’s confusion seems genuine — it’s natural to be confused when it seems you’re doing everything right to only moderate success.
Fortunately or not, Sweet Talker has solved the problem of doing everything right. Jessie J has admitted the album was made unusually fast, and it comes off as both slapdash and retooled to an inch of its life. Though Cornish is an accomplished songwriter — the sticky hook to Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” is hers — she has very few credits here. The big names involved like Max Martin, The-Dream and Diplo present a sonic panoply that’s only notable for who isn’t there — namely Pharrell, who was supposed to work with Cornish on new material that was presumably scrapped. The only recurring themes are a breathless forced energy and a frenzied vocal and production crusade against the haters, the loud, the doubters and, on lead track “Ain’t Been Done, the “unbelievers.”
This theme isn’t new for Jessie J — Who You Are had the clownish “Who’s Laughing Now” — but Sweet Talker has it almost everywhere, from “Masterpiece” (“If you don’t like my sound, you can turn it down”) to “Loud” (“I tried to drown them all out in my sound, but they won’t stop until they tear you down”). The latter, despite a briefly pretty turn by pop violinist and YouTube celebrity Lindsey Stirling, comes off particularly tone-deaf, a way of taking haters and making them self-fulfilling prophecies.
The one distinguishing factor of the Jessie J Brand, as demonstrated on Sweet Talker, is that she can sing. Yuks about pop stars aside, this is a curious statement to make in 2014, as the year’s biggest divas, our Beyoncés and Arianas, aren’t short on chops. Nevertheless, Sweet Talker proves, at exhausting length, that Jessie J can indeed sing — enthusiastically, frequently, sometimes sharply. (That said, it’s best when she sticks to singing; the “hip-hop” tracks come off like Cornish heard talk of a rapper “spitting” and thought they meant it literally.)
It’s clear that, like much of the music industry, Jessie J’s team is taking cues from Beyoncé; mercifully, this comes not in the form of release-gimmick shenanigans but a certain heft to the vocal production. But what Beyoncé had that Sweet Talker does not is innovative production. “Fire” and “Get Away” are dull vocal showcases. “Bang Bang” is soul via claustrophobic digital compression, but it’s tolerable compared to the fetid swirl of classic-rock guitar and stomp of “Burnin’ Up” (which boasts the album’s worst lyric, the needlessly spelled-out “subliminal sex”). “Personal” — written by R&B aspirant Elle Varner — aims at “Pretty Hurts” but lands instead on “Pretty Hurts,” if Katy Perry did it as was threatened.
That’s lot of comparisons, again, but Sweet Talker’s best moment comes when Cornish stops dwelling on them and embraces the derivative. In a world where Ariana Grande’s Mariah revivalism has made her a genuine star, the similarly ‘90s-indebted “Seal Me With a Kiss” isn’t exactly a risk, but Cornish lets up on the vocal assault, the need to make her stamp, and sounds breezy, even fun — two words rarely applied to her. For all the straining on Sweet Talker to make Jessie J a star, she’s best when just focusing on making good pop.