June 8, 2016


Nick Jonas: A Pop Star Who Needs to Be Challenged

Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPN
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images for ESPN

October 2013 isn’t that far back in the past—in pop terms, it was the month of Bangerz, Prism and “Royals”—but for Nick Jonas, it's already a lifetime ago. 

That was the month in which the Jonas Brothers abruptly scrapped a comeback tour over “creative differences,” and then called it quits. Looking up to his brothers Kevin and Joe, Nick said that he felt “trapped” by the trio; from doing what, we weren’t sure at the time. The youngest Jonas had already headlined an unsuccessful project, Nick Jonas & The Administration, in 2010. Perhaps he desperately needed his inner artiste to shine, but did Nick really think that flying solo was more promising than continuing the best-selling pop-rock bro-band?

Apparently he did, and now we look like idiots for doubting the move. Jonas’ 2014 self-titled solo debut boasted two endlessly listenable Top 40 hits, “Jealous” and “Chains,” that simultaneously redefined the now-grown-up Jonas as a swaggering heartthrob (and if the singles weren’t convincing enough, the beefed-up, shirtless press shots certainly drove the point home). 

“Jealous,” in particular, is exactly the type of pop track that solo stars crave for their arsenal: simple, slinky pop-R&B, catchy enough to command a karaoke room but innovative in the way it unlocked the hidden strengths of his voice. Nick performed it with a gospel choir; he performed it at the Kids’ Choice Awards; he performed a countrified version of it at the CMAs. A tireless worker who’s been part of the major label factory since the age of 12, Jonas recognized a high demand for a song like “Jealous,” and supplied it to awards ceremonies, late-night shows and pride parades for a full year after its September 2014 release.

As for those pride parades...yeah, Nick Jonas has done a whole lot within the LGBT community over the past year, some of which has been laudable charity work, some of which has earned the singer accusations of “gay-baiting” to further his career from certain corners of the internet. Meanwhile, Jonas has leaned on his Disney constituency by touring and forming a record label partnership with Demi Lovato, flaunted his acting chops on shows like Kingdom and Scream Queens. He's popped up with a few new tracks, like promo single “Levels” and the Sage the Gemini collaboration “Good Thing,” to tide fans over until his next full-length.

All of this is to say: Nick Jonas has been busy pulling a lot of levers over the past year, although there’s also a sense that he is still a relatively blank slate as a mainstream pop personality. Chalk that up to the fact that he’s only released one album so far, but also consider Nick’s inherent restraint in interviews and live appearances, more a measured subject than an agent of chaos. Hell, Jonas himself announced in March that his new single was about “how I literally can’t open up and be vulnerable with someone.” 

Given a sizable lead-up and summer release, Jonas’ sophomore record, Last Year Was Complicated (due out Friday, June 10), is supposed to untangle the complexities of the pop star who is suddenly everywhere, but who we don’t quite yet know or understand. Who is Nick Jonas? Why was his last year so complicated? It's time for some answers.

Last Year Was Complicated is ostensibly about a breakup and its many overwhelming emotions, from wanting to share a last drink with an ex-lover to feeling like you need to physically destroy the last place you slept together to admitting that, hey, bacon is a pretty good thing to eat when you’re sad about a breakup. Jonas’ performance on the album is compelling enough, as he sidles between self-reflection and choruses that can fill arenas. His falsetto is on-point, he swears just enough and he still knows how to coil himself around a good melody. 

The problem with the album is the way those hooks are dressed. Last Year Was Complicated features some jarringly flaccid production for a major pop release. It’s not that Jonas has selected poor collaborators: The album is driven by Jason Evigan (“Chains,” Lovato’s “Heart Attack”) and Nolan “Sir Nolan” Lambroza (“Jealous,” Selena Gomez’s “Good for You”), with a Max Martin song (“Under You”) peppered in for good measure. Yet Last Year Was Complicated is wholly passive in its sonic decisions—there’s standard dance floor catnip at the beginning (“Champagne Problems”), a piano ballad near the end (“Unhinged”), guest spots by Big Sean and Ty Dolla $ign, and a song (“Chainsaw”) with a refrain so similar to the bridge of “Jealous” that it should have been titled “Envious.” 

Safe choices abound, and Jonas’ lyrical growth is stunted. Even the Martin-produced “Under You” comes off like an undercooked riff on Taylor Swift’s “Style.”

Let’s compare Last Year Was Complicated to another sophomore album by a former boy band member hoping to spin a few hits from his first solo LP into long-term success. Justin Timberlake’s 2006 opus FutureSex/LoveSounds was singular in its vision, and while part of that has to do with Timberlake’s bold stylistic presentation, Timbaland also deserves a lion’s share of the credit for his forward-looking production. 

Timbaland challenged Timberlake on that album, and this is what Jonas needs to find at this point in his career: a foil. In the same way that Timbaland pushed JT into recording something more engrossing than a collection of 12 “Rock Your Body"s, Jonas needs someone to conjure a project out of him that doesn’t include any “Jealous” retreads.

This type of artist-producer coupling happens all the time in pop music, and sometimes it happens sooner (Meghan Trainor with Ricky Reed, Zayn Malik with Malay) than later (Taylor Swift with Max Martin, Pink with Greg Kurstin). Nick Jonas is a gifted performer, and has time to find the producer that best understands his strengths (the Jonas Whisperer, if you will). His solo career is thriving: new single “Close” is another Top 20 hit, and his summer tour with Lovato should be a blast. Nick's a long way away from October 2013, but he’s still got some moves to make before he becomes who he truly wants to be.

Next, watch Fuse sit down with Nick Jonas early in his solo career: