What do we talk about when we talk about Nick Jonas — and why is it so rarely about Nick Jonas's actual music? In recent weeks, the pop star has faced a growing debate about his stance of very public support for the LGBTQ community, which some see as pandering. The argument only intensified when Jonas visited New York's Stonewall Inn this month during a vigil for the victims of the massacre at Orlando's Pulse nightclub, a presumably well-intentioned move that nonetheless drew the ire of many gay writers and publications, who called him out for "queerbaiting" and implicitly whitewashing a queer tragedy. It wasn't as grim as that, I’d say — at most, the awkwardness of it all added some much-needed levity in a time of crippling emotion. And no, Nick Jonas is not a real gay icon. As a straight white celebrity male, he's earned none of the struggle that gives an artist a deep connection to our community. But enough of that: Did anyone notice that Jonas also released an album of new music this month, called Last Year Was Complicated, and that it's pretty great?
Immersed in pop hits as it was, Nick Jonas’s self-titled 2014 album was nothing too original. Full of sexual bravado and indecent proposals like those on “Jealous,” where he demanded his lover only have eyes for him, and “Teacher,” where he played a sexy Trunchbull with a hard ruler, the album cribbed its moves directly from the early playbooks used by Justin Timberlake, Justin Bieber, and the revolving door of boy bands seen in the early 2000s. But like his predecessors, Jonas has realized that male-sung pop never gets the respect it deserves when it's not Michael Jackson (or, these days, fronted by some ’80s-influenced indie-ish band). And so, like Timberlake and Bieber before him, Jonas has shed his pop past for an audacious hip-hop aesthetic on Last Year Was Complicated. He leans hard on a blend of pop, R&B, and hip-hop that Drake perfected years ago. Thankfully for Jonas, he went through a high-profile split with former Miss Universe Olivia Culpo before making this LP. You can almost hear him scrolling through his iMessages while listening to Jodeci and drinking Hennessy, in true Drake fashion … and a breakup album was born.
Trading pop clichés for hip-hop beats is a good look for Jonas. This isn't the album that early single "Close," the requisite ballad where he warbled to teens, would have us believe — and that's for the best. Jonas gets help with his new sound from worthy guests like Big Sean and Ty Dolla $ign and producers like Jason Evigan (of Zedd's "Papercut" fame). Opening track “Voodoo” sounds like a mid-2000s Timbaland and Nelly Furtado banger if I’ve ever heard one, and the chorus of “Bacon” is full of playful wordplay — what's more fun than Jonas wanting to fix his love life by hollering, “Aw, shit, throw some bacon on it”? Bacon makes everything better, including a Nick Jonas album.
"Touch" and "The Difference" are chilly bangers that embrace a laid-back, lush hip-hop vibe instead of the thundering cacophony that so many summer pop hits tend to head for. The album has its share of would-be pop standards — “Champagne Problems” is designed for summer pool parties — but it balances them with tracks like “Good Girls,” an accusatory R&B song about a wayward lover that wouldn’t be out of place as a fire Drake single.
Nick has officially leaned into his swagger and hung up his generic pop jersey. The album’s final track, “Comfortable,” isn’t just a song about convincing a new lover to trust in him — it’s his mission statement. He’s talking to us. He even samples Allen Iverson's 2002 "practice" rant: “I’m supposed to be the franchise player, and we in here talking about practice. I mean, listen, we talking about practice. Not a game, not a game, not a game: We talking about practice.” Straight-up sampling a spoken word interlude from Iverson isn't something you'll get from other pop artists; that’s some rap shit. You might expect to see that on a Jay, Kendrick, or Kanye joint, but not a Nick Jonas track, which is the point. Jonas knows what you think of him. And yeah, he’s hot and he’s white, but he’s still an artist and he’s sensitive about his shit. He’s been at this since he was a kid. He’s used to enticing people with his looks and public displays of thirst. But he's quietly grown into a pop star worth taking seriously, and with Last Year Was Complicated, he’s finally making music that doesn’t sound like it’s practice. His head’s in the game. So quit all the other shit, and let’s play.