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Review: Jason Derulo Is Better Than ‘Bad,’ He’s Good on ‘Everything Is 4′

8
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: June 2, 2015
Label: Warner Bros.

For a man who’s best-known for singing his name enough times to fill an hour, Jason Desrouleaux’s music really ascended when he decided it needed no introduction. A chart hotshot who keeps his album running times as trim as his glutes and even slimmed down his surname to better grace a billboard (or Billboard), he gives the try-anything ethos a good name and pries it from the jaws of such pop baggage as a Cultivated Persona or a Social Media Presence. Last year’s excellent Talk Dirty almost didn’t see a U.S. release at all, before his 2013 album Tattoos got a reshuffle and some new key guests, like the ubiquitous Snoop Dogg on the profoundly silly “Wiggle,” a big-fat-butt trifle that spiritually belongs in the hands of a Baha Men or Los Del Rio rather than a capital-A album artist. The song was so elementary-school it was even based around that instrument you played in fourth grade.

But the rest of Talk Dirty followed suit all over, with booty-centric novelty hooks galore (try the pitch-oscillating “Bubblegum”) and other instruments you don’t hear on the pop charts anymore if ever (the title tune’s Balkan Beat Box sample beckoned ladies inside his Gogol bordello). Derulo had scored the occasional Kevlar radio hit — I’m partial to “It Girl” and how it unpacks various successive permutations of the title — but even Talk Dirty fans might’ve called that specific batch a fluke; a lack of self-consciousness and thematic glue make for guileless but not trustworthy pop stars. Without ever getting deeper than “You’re blessed from behind / I’ma take you to church,” Derulo’s latest, Everything Is 4, proves he’s a workhorse, with possibly even (gulp) a vision.

The automatic first single “Want to Want Me” is irresistible robo-disco on air but makes for a strange album opener, kicking off with just half a beat and a faint “Derulo!” whispered so softly it implies a man embarrassed by his signature gimmick but not above it. But it’s emblematic of how 2015’s best pop album cuts to the chase — in 39 minutes only the penultimate Julia Michaels duet “Trade Hearts” indulges in the kind of corn that people who cry “poptimist” think an uncomplicated people-pleaser like Derulo wallows in.

Even they might be converted by the future-pinball Bo Diddley hook of “Get Ugly,” (as in “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” on the evidence of its folded-in whip-crack noises) or the Afro-futurist “Sexual Healing” pulsations of “Try Me,” which might be the best song of J. Lo’s career. It’s possible that Derulo is so square he thinks the Stevie Wonder/Keith Urban harmonica-banjo fantasy camp “Broke” is going to further his career, but more likely the guy who’s pillaged everything from trumpets to Harry Belafonte for his hooks just has an increasingly uncommon appreciation for instrumental breaks that can’t be characterized as drops. Half of Everything Is 4 is the bullshit-free Justin Timberlake album that those of us who prefer future sex to love sounds have been waiting for, with no power moves in a geeky guest list that even scores a highlight via the unthinkable Meghan Trainor on the crazed-tango “Painkiller.” Ricky Martin’s so mad right now that his comeback album will have to wait.

And it was only a matter of time before Derulo had to show Prince his portamento swag on “X2CU,” which challenges the purple dinosaur to a housequake. This is an anomaly; Derulo is far more interested in jocking Michael Jackson, who also cut his teeth on rigorous routines and carefree tunes for a decade before positing himself at the top by any means imaginable. Thriller is in another solar system. But the “I never meant to fall in love” games of the jarringly specific “Cheyenne” bring to mind Bad, which was less friendly, and more nervous come to think of it. Everything Is 4 makes a compelling case for whittled-down songwriting discipline as its own reward, and the admittedly not-deep host isn’t without his charms, like being unable to conceal his horny grin by opening “Get Ugly” with the un-P.C. “Oh my, oh my, oh my god / This girl straight and this girl not.” Fourth-grade, retrograde, retro-pop even, pining quietly for the simpler time when pop albums were variety packs aimed at both Keith Urban and Stevie Wonder fans, Jason Derulo doesn’t pretend to be anything he’s not. Say his name, say his name.