Charlie Puth has something to prove. On his sophomore album Voicenotes, out May 11, the 26-year-old singer is out to set the record straight that he’s neither a one-hit wonder nor an off-the-rack artist. So Puth is growing up and getting real, letting his background in jazz and the influence of slick ’90s funk and R&B shine through. The result is a 13-track pop collection that documents disillusionment and nostalgia alike. It’s retro, bittersweet and undeniable as sonic catnip.
Born in New Jersey and educated at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, Puth discovered at a young age that he had perfect pitch. He found modest attention in his late teens with a comedic YouTube channel, but his career really picked up when his song covers were discovered by Ellen DeGeneres, who invited him on her show and signed him to her label. In 2015, he recorded the soul-inspired “Marvin Gaye” with Meghan Trainor and collaborated with rapper Wiz Khalifa on “See You Again,” a tear-jerking tribute to the late Fast and the Furious actor Paul Walker that dominated the charts. His debut album, Nine Track Mind, soon followed.
But where it was difficult to locate Puth’s identity in his debut, Voicenotes commits him to a signature sound–not least of all because he wrote and produced every track. The songs layer his hummed falsettos over bouncy synths and spartan beats. Lead singles “Attention” and “How Long” have already gone platinum, with his breathy vocals foregrounded over catchy bass lines. With tracks like “Patient” and “Done for Me,” using an assist from R&B up-and-comer Kehlani, Puth mines various modes of the retro slow jam, all while spelling out the letdowns of modern love. And he features several big names, including Boyz II Men on the sugary “If You Leave Me Now” and folk icon James Taylor for an uplifting collaboration dedicated to the Parkland survivors.
But it’s album opener “The Way I Am” that acts as a mission statement. A smooth, jazzy number, it’s both a blustery challenge and a quiet apology. “You can either hate me or love me, but that’s just the way I am,” he sings with a shrug. Then, almost in a whisper, he second-guesses himself: “Everybody’s trying to be famous, and I’m just trying to find a place to hide.” It may not be his most subtle songwriting, but Puth’s earnest desire–to be liked, loved and, above all, respected as an artist–elevates him to exactly where he wants to be.
This appears in the May 21, 2018 issue of TIME.
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