Even in a cultural landscape where surprises have been in no short supply and anyone’s proven capable of righting their own ship of public perception, before this year it seemed unlikely that Charlie Puth would ever achieve critical redemption. After building low-level industry buzz via the always-churning YouTube circuit, the 27-year-old singer first gained exposure to the world at large through his co-write and deathless hook on Wiz Khalifa’s interminable Furious 7 soundtrack single “See You Again” in 2015, a massive hit so dreadful-sounding that not even its own explicitly funereal theme could shield it from derision.
When the song’s video became the most-watched YouTube clip in history last year, Puth told Billboard that Universal Pictures, the film studio behind Furious 7, didn’t even want him on the song at all — capitulating only after Puth threatened to pull the song from consideration for the soundtrack. In the wake of the meteoric success of “See You Again,” attention soon turned to “Marvin Gaye,” Puth’s single with inspo-pop impresario Meghan Trainor taken from his 2015 EP Some Kind of Love and newly fashioned as the lead single from his debut, Nine Track Mind, which would see release a year later.
Peaking at No. 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming something of a global hit in the process, the horny sock-hop vibes of “Marvin Gaye” proved revolting in ways beyond Puth’s infamous lyric “It’s Kama Sutra show and tell”; when the pair performed the single at the 2015 American Music Awards, they shared a clearly staged kiss so cringe-inducingly awkward that it made M.J. and Lisa Marie’s infamous VMAs smooch look downright passionate in the process. The plain, airless Nine Track Mind (which, for what it’s worth, has since achieved platinum-selling status in the U.S.) didn’t fare much better critically; even Pitchfork — a publication typically loath to address the mere existence of adult-contemporary-esque pop fare — piled on with an abysmal and withering review that claimed the album was “aimed exclusively at … children, prepubescents, the discomfitingly waxed.”
Normally, Nine Track Mind would’ve marked the conclusion of Puth’s narrative in an explicitly critical sense, an inauspicious end that would see him joining the ranks of Train and Trainor alike as a mildly inoffensive pop presence churning out pop that only the most rankled critics would continue to take aim at. Instead, Puth got better: His second full-length album, Voicenotes, saw release in May of this year and, despite its near-total absence on the year-end lists currently besieging the internet’s collective attention, stands as one of the year’s most uncommonly strong pop albums. It’s an arguably overlooked album in which the reasons for being overlooked are as simple as no one really wanting to “look” at it. Call it a common refrain if you will, but 2018 seemed to ask so much of our collective patience — doesn’t the idea of giving Charlie Puth another shot seem like a bit much to ask?
But considering the strange, transitional place pop found itself in this year, maybe it’s not such a weird request. With Drake and Post Malone dominating much of the genre’s mainstream attention, the leftover oxygen in pop’s atmosphere was inhaled through auteurist moves from major players and bids for greater artistic maturity from rising stars. Transitional years like these in pop music can double as periods of creative development for potential leading lights for years to come; in regards to 2018. Releases from about-to-break artists like Troye Sivan and Christine and the Queens spoke to such potential for incubation, and the same goes for Puth’s Voicenotes, a style-soaked album that suggests talent beyond his own beginnings.
Largely self-produced with songwriting assists from folks like Max Martin affiliate Rami and indie darling Tobias Jesso Jr., the record represented Puth’s attempt to, in his words, capture “walking down a dirt road and listening to New Edition in 1989 — and being heartbroken, of course.” The features range from of-the-moment (Kehlani) to utterly idiosyncratic (Boyz II Men, James Taylor); the sound is buttery, 1980s night-drive soft rock so reverent to its forebears that one of the songs — the airy “Slow It Down” — literally interpolates Hall & Oates’ immortal “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do).” Of course, turning to the sounds of ’80s pop for sonic inspiration is not at all new on the surface; rather, the decade has proved such a constant reference point for both mainstream and underground music that merely listing examples would be a waste of time.
But the big-money sheen that coats Voicenotes amplifies how distinctly uncool Puth’s music sounds in its warm, nocturnal lushness — to the point where he broke out the goddamned keytar on the accompanying tour. Chicago’s Peter Cetera–penned 1982 cheese-fest “Hard to Say I’m Sorry” is a solid point of comparison, as well as evoked to strident effect on the Boyz II Men collab “If You Leave Me Now.” Puth melds this expensive-sounding and thoroughly unstylish approach with just the right amount of modern R&B’s purple-sounding melodic tendencies to craft something akin to Maroon 5’s critically misjudged Red Pill Blues from last year: deceptively pleasurable pop with miles of alluringly empty space surrounding it.
Loving Voicenotes can be complicated — not because of the music itself, but due to the personality that serves as its lyrical anchor. Pettiness is the name of the game here (told you Drake’s influence is inescapable!), as Puth pouts and fires back soft, wounded invectives over much of the album’s 13 tracks. “How the hell did I get caught up / Messin’ with these L.A. girls,” he simpers while surfing a wave of synths over (of course) “L.A. Girls,” later disrupting the piping, sensual mist surrounding “Boy” by stomping his feet in impatience toward an older lover: “You never took me seriously / Now what the hell is that about?” When he shoots for current-events profundity, as he does on the Taylor team-up “Change,” the utterly waffling results make John Mayer’s “Waiting for the World to Change” sound like a Naomi Klein book by comparison; on his best single to date, “Attention,” he’s practically sneering at an off-camera paramour with all the likability of a petulant child.
Somehow, all this potential off-putting-ness works in Puth’s favor. His most dirtbaggy moments pair nicely with his oil-slick aesthetic — like chasing a bite of aged fromage with a gulp of Two Buck Chuck — and even Voicenotes’ whiniest moments possess an endearing, campy ridiculousness, as if even Puth himself knows that he can sound a little embarrassing sometimes. It helps, if in a weird way, that such shared embarrassment has practically defined his career thus far, from the aforementioned AMAs smooch-a-thon to the revelation in the aforementioned Billboard profile that he tells his driver he wants food by saying “I’m hungies!” It’s almost as if Puth can’t help himself but come across as more than a little silly — an unintentionally self-effacing charm that contributes to the irresistibility that is Voicenotes.
And Puth’s likable unlikability slots right into the bad-guys-win narrative that coursed through pop’s veins in 2018. Post Malone effectively spent the last 12 months wearing the collective public down to the point where a recent Washington Post screed against the beer-funneling rapper was met with equal parts celebration and rejection; Drake replied to the revelation of his absentee fatherhood with a chart-topping dance challenge that made him a bigger star than ever, while Nicki Minaj spent much of the promotional cycle around her latest LP Queen self-combusting in fits of astounding pettiness on the shit-talk-stravaganza that was her Apple Music show “Queen Radio.” Those are but the most extreme examples, of which by comparison Puth’s greatest moral transgressions on Voicenotes come off with the feloniousness of drinking milk straight from the carton — but sometimes, being a little bad is all you really need to have a good time.