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Album Review: Nick Jonas: Last Year Was Complicated

Fifth Harmony 7/27 Album Review

Album Review: Drake Views

Ariana Grande: Dangerous Woman

Gwen Stefani Review: This Is What The Truth Feels Like

Nick JonasAlbum Review: Nick Jonas: Last Year Was Complicated

Album Review

Nick Jonas, the youngest member of the now-defunct fraternal pop-rock trio bearing his now-famous surname, seems to be making a play for sympathy of sorts on his third solo album, Last Year Was Complicated. The complication he unpacks (in detail) revolves around a woman (or women) he's broken up with.

Procuring as much sex as he wants doesn't seem to be much of a problem for the 23-year-old former Disney star. But finding lasting, satisfying love? That's a much thornier proposition for the junior Jonas Brother … in part because he's still not sure he even wants to trade all those casual carnal conquests for lasting love with just one woman.

Pro-social Content

"Good Girls" ponders why some nice girls think they need to behave nastily to garner attention ("When did all these good girls decide to be bad?"), suggesting that it's partially because they're rebelling against their fathers ("Dancin' up on the table, getting' back at your dad") and partially because they've been conditioned to please lusty, leering men ("Don't wanna blame you for it, 'cause that's what we ask of you"). The song ultimately says a woman's appeal should be based on more than just her looks ("You know I love your skin, but is it deeper than that?/ … You know sexy isn't just what you see").

"Champagne Problems" laments, "We were the opposite of breaking up/Can't believe I'm losing you." Meanwhile, "Don't Make Me Choose" promises, "Whenever I can, I'll be there/You got a man who knows exactly what you need/ … If you wanna talk, I'll listen." "Unhinged" confesses, "You're not the first to try and diagnose what's wrong with me/I'll be the first to admit that I'm hard to please." "Voodoo" finds Jonas admitting he needs to get away from a woman he knows is a bad influence, but…

Objectionable Content

… that knowledge isn't enough to help him say no to her sensual charms. It's a weakness that shows up over and over again on Complicated. "Close," for instance, looks forward to minimizing the physical space between Jonas and a woman, even though he probably already knows this is a bad idea ("Oh d--n, oh d--n, oh d--n/I'm so perplexed").

Likewise, on "Champagne Problems" Jonas and a paramour break up, then promptly pop the cork on some bubbly and shed their clothes ("We got champagne problems/Only one way to solve 'em/ … Keep on, keep on drinking/ … How did our clothes end up on the floor?/Didn't we just break each other's hearts?") "Chainsaw" finds him violently responding to his cohabiting partner's decision to move out: "And maybe I'll just take a chain saw to the sofa/Where I held your body close for so long, so long/I'm gonna break the f---ing china/'Cause it's just one more reminder you're gone, you're gone." Later he turns to other unhealthy painkilling strategies, including alcohol ("Drink in my glass, better make it strong") and promiscuity ("Some nights wanna fill this space/A tight dress and a pretty face").

More suggestive physical fantasies fill "Touch," where we hear (among other things), "Go crazy/In the bedroom, babe/ … I wanna get inside your brain/Every part of you." Similarly sensual stuff saturates "The Difference" and "Under You."

"Bacon" finds Jonas pondering which he wants more, an always-willing partner ("Sizzling, white hot/Give me that sugar with the sweet talk") or a no-strings-attached existence in which he doesn't have to answer to anyone ("One thing I love more than being with you/And that's no ties, no drama in my life"). The same kind of self-centered ambivalence turns up on "Unhinged," where Jonas tells a woman that he's just not ready for a lifetime commitment: "I'm afraid to find out that I might be right for you/'Cause it's one step closer to life with you/And that's not me."

Summary Advisory

In the end, Nick Jonas' supposedly Complicated life isn't really anything of the sort. He's a young man who occasionally flirts with the idea of commitment. But he's much more committed to flirting—and a lot more than that—than he is making vows that would require him to subdue his self-absorption. He wants everything on his terms, but he's loath to be shackled to the self-sacrificing terms that a real relationship would demand of him.

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Fifth HarmonyFifth Harmony 7/27 Album Review

Album Review

What is the measure of a woman's worth? Is it love? Sex? Money? Fame? On any given track on the sophomore effort from the all-female group Fifth Harmony, it could be any of those things. The result is an album that veers wildly between healthy, empowering messages and sexualizing, self-objectifying ones.

Pro-social Content

"That's My Girl" is an empowerment anthem emphasizing the importance of women working hard, taking charge of their lives and not letting manipulative men define them. "You've been down before/You've been hurt before/You got up before/You'll be good to go, go to go/ … You know your worth." Hard work is again encouraged on "The Life": "Ever since I'm young, I'm tryna get it right/Every year I'm working toward a goal." "I Lied" longs for "real love," which the band describes as a guy who gets in touch during the day ("You got that real love/That text in the morning, that real love").

Though quite sensual elsewhere, "Squeeze" nevertheless longs for a safe, accepting relationship ("Face to face/ … This is the safest place I've ever known"). Deluxe Edition bonus track "No Way" also emphasizes unconditional love: "Everyone comes with scars, but you can love them anyway/I told you that I wasn't perfect, you told me the same/I think that's why we belong together and unashamed." "Gonna Get Better" tries to convince a guy that love, not money or material things, is what matters most in a relationship ("I won't leave you for a money man/No matter what we go through/ … But you know all that I want is you"). "Scared of Happy" finds a young woman confronting the fact that she's terrified of a healthy relationship that's actually working. "Not That Kind of Girl" demonstrates self-respect as we hear a woman tell a man in a club that she's not going to jump into bed with him "on the first date."

Objectionable Content

"Work From Home" finds a woman trying to tease her guy home from work by telling him she's wandering around "wearing na nada" and by sending him sexts. Double entendres fill the song, and guest contributor Ty Dolla $ign compares his lady to a stripper. Similarly, "All in My Head (Flex)" references stripper motifs ("Throwing bills at you") in its song-length exaltation of acrobatic sex ("Flex, time to impress/Come and climb in my bed/Don't be shy, do your thing"). "Squeeze" talks of emotional intimacy … and the physical variety, too. "Write on Me" sensually asks a lover to tattoo a woman ("Everything is blank until you draw me/Touching on my body like you know me"). "Not That Kind of Girl" implies that while sex isn't happening on the first date, a man who treats a woman right can earn that privilege fairly quickly.

"The Life" longs for luxury and inebriating indulgence ("Eating good, getting lit/Living life, feeling rich/ … Poolside, sipping on a Mai Tai/ … This is the life." "I Lied" compares love to getting high.

Profanity on several tracks includes s- and f-words (including one partially bleeped pairing of the latter with "mother"), as well as "d--n" and "a--."

Summary Advisory

Just as the five young women in Fifth Harmony skillfully blend the popular sounds of the day—pop, R&B, rap and EDM stylings swirling among them—so they also serve up a soufflé of secular society's often paradoxically mixed messages about where a woman should seek to ground her identity.

One minute that means taking charge and working hard. The next it means trying to please a man who compares her to a stripper. If only the genuinely positive messages here could be easily, completely sifted from the damaging ones. Alas, separating the uplifting themes from the demeaning ones on 7/27 is as impossible as trying to separate the five beautiful voices that comprise Fifth Harmony itself.

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DrakeAlbum Review: Drake Views

Album Review

For a musician as massively successful as Drake is, he's sure mopey. He's got trust issues. He pines for women from his past. And all that bling? Well, it doesn't seem to be making him happy. If anything, it just amplifies his isolation and creates conflict with friends who are trying to con him out of all his money.

Pro-social Content

Drake sometimes finds genuine satisfaction in caring for others ("Keeping people fed is my only peace of mind now," he says on "9"). He's also aware of how not squandering his success is important for those who work for him ("Understand I got responsibilities to people that I need"). Likewise, "Pop Style" mentions providing for his family. "One Dance" prays for a girlfriend's safe return, asks for "strength and guidance" for friends" and looks to avoid conflict ("I don't wanna spend time fighting"). On "Keep the Family Close," Drake says family members are the only people he can depend upon, contrasting them with friends' betrayals ("Guess that's what they say you need family for/'Cause I can't depend on you anymore").

"Hype" admits, "Chasing women is a distraction" and honestly ponders what comes after reaching the top of the heap ("I don't know what else is left for me"). "Feel No Ways" tells a paramour he's feuding with, "There's more to life than sleeping in/And getting high with you."

"Faithful" finds Drake promising to live up to that lofty word ("I won't have affairs, I'm yours, girl/Faithful, faithful, faithful, faithful"). "Fire & Desire" looks forward to marriage with someone Drake respects ("I just wanna wife/Keep you in front, never in the back/And never on the side, yeah"). "Redemption" wonders, "Why do I settle for women that force me to pick up the pieces?" Elsewhere on that song, Drake vulnerably admits that the affirmation of those close to him is important ("Certain people need to tell me they're proud of me/That mean a lot to me") and realizes that his workaholic tendencies tend to have a negative impact on his relationships. That song also asks, "Who's gonna save me when I need savin'?"

"Weston Road Flows" shows that poverty can't stand in the way of brotherhood. Then the song emphasizes the connection between success and hard work, advising, "Don't let your newfound fame fool you or cloud up your judgment" and even admitting, "Money can't buy happiness."

Objectionable Content

Harsh profanities (f-words, s-words, n-words, "b--ch," "a--," etc.) earn iTunes' "Explicit" warnings for 18 of these 20 tracks. Add to that drugs and graphic sexual encounters.

"U With Me?" states, "My house is the definition/Of alcohol and weed addiction." "Weston Road Flows" tells us, "I'm happiest when I can buy what I want/Get high when I want." Guest rapper Future's contribution on "Grammys" mentions the prescription drugs Xanax and Percocet, as well as cocaine.

"With You" talks of deliberately plying women with alcohol ("Mixing vodka and emotions, tapping into your emotions") before moving on to casual sex ("Choose your lover for the moment"). "Faithful" includes an explicit reference to a woman's sexual anatomy, then instructs, "On my way from the studio, so get undressed/Let's do the things that we say on the text/I want to get straight to the climax," then concludes with another reference to a woman's orgasm.

"Controlla" repeatedly references "aggressive" intercourse and includes a winking allusion to the size of a man's anatomy. Coitus gets even more acrobatic on "Child's Play," which includes references to a woman having sex with athletes on a basketball team and trading sex for new clothes. There are, again, explicit references to sexual body parts, and the song suggests that a man would be crazy to trade endless casual sex for marriage ("Married in our twenties? Now where's the fun in that?")

Still more sexual content turns up on other tracks (a couple of which talk about "grinding"), as do other references to drugs and alcohol. "Redemption" threatens, "I'll kill somebody if they give you problems," then rhymes, "Master bedroom's where we get it poppin'."

On "Still Here," Drake brags that it's his wealth and celebrity that put him on not just fans' maps but also God's. He chants, "I gotta talk to God even though He isn't near me/Based on what I got it's hard to think that He don't hear me/Hittin' like that 30 on my jersey, man I'm gifted/Whole lot of sixes, but I'm still like/Hallelujah, hallelujah, hallelujah/Six-point star, lion of the Judah" And then the song ends with this spiritually self-focused worship refrain: "Wow, all praise to the most high up."

Summary Advisory

The view from Drake's lofty perch near the top of the rap pedestal is a lonely one. Amid the melancholy fog where he generally spends his time, Drake occasionally has some perceptive—if fleeting—moments of introspective insight.

But after spending the day looking at life from all the angles in Drake's Views, I was just tired. Twenty downbeat tracks exhibit a worldview that's still as empty—filled, as it is, with self-love, sex, drugs, alcohol and crates of cash—as it was when last we heard from Toronto's native son.

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Ariana GrandeAriana Grande: Dangerous Woman

Album Review

Ariana Grande certainly didn't hang out in role-model land very long. And on Dangerous Woman she's gleefully lit the match on any lingering hopes that the nice girl from Nickelodeon's Sam & Cat might still be loitering about somewhere in the back of her personality.

"I used to feel so obligated to be so much more," she sings on the bluntly titled "I Don't Care." "I used to let some people tell me how to live and what to be/But if I can't be me, then what's the point? No/I don't care about it anymore/ … I love me." Families to Miss Grande: Message received, loud and clear.

Pro-social Content

"Be Alright" is one of the album's few attempts to be sweet and tender without veering into sexual territory. Amid struggle and uncertainty, Ariana tells a beau, "But the hard times are golden/'Cause they all lead to better days/We're gonna be alright." "Leave Me Lonely" demonstrates self-respect and restraint as Ariana wisely tells a bad boy not to come back ("So when you walk out that door/Don't you come back no more/ … You're a dangerous love/Baby, you're no good for me, darling"). "Sometimes" promises commitment ("I ain't even think of leaving sometimes/I ain't even think of letting go"). Deluxe Edition bonus track "Knew Better/Forever Boy" treads similar territory as Ariana repeatedly vows, "You're my forever boy."

Objectionable Content

How much does Dangerous Woman focus on sex? Let me count the ways: Seven of 11 tracks on the base album and all four of the Deluxe Edition bonus tracks revolve around that subject. Here's a representative sampling:
"Moonlight" finds Ariana singing breathily, "Puts his lips on my neck/Makes me want to give him my body."
"Dangerous Woman" gushes, "All that you got, skin to skin, oh my god/Don't ya stop, boy." The track also suggests, "All girls wanna be like that/Bad girls underneath, like that."
"Into You" brags that Ariana's up for any game her man wants to play ("So name a game to play, and I'll roll the dice, hey") and eventually trades coy flirtiness for more direct instructions ("So, baby, come light me up and maybe I'll let you on it") as she says she's on the verge of losing control ("I can't wait no more/I'm on the edge with no control").
The reggae-themed "Side to Side" finds Ariana telling a guy with a "bad reputation" that she wants to "rock with your body." She brags, "Tonight I'm making deals with the devil." Guest Nicki Minaj's contribution is too graphic to print in its description of the male anatomy. Her raps also include the put-down "b--ches" and a use of the f-word.
On the sex-themed "Let Me Move You," Ariana profanely tells a lover, "And I don't normally say this, but, g--d--n, you're the best, best, best." Guest Lil Wayne crudely imagines intercourse with his singing co-partner on the song, again with lyrics too explicit to print.
"Everyday" uses that word to describe how frequently Ariana and her lover do some "good s---" together.
"Greedy" uses a suggestive double entendre ("You know that I'm coming tonight") as Ariana confesses, "I'm just physically obsessed/And I'm greedy."
Bonus track "Thinking Bout You" hints at indulging a masturbation fantasy during a lover's absence. Additional bonus tracks "Touch It" and "Bad Decisions" are likewise completely focused on sex.

Summary Advisory

"I Don't Care" tells fans and critics alike, "Now I laugh about the things that used to be important to me/Used to have a hold on me, used to have a hold on me/Like what do you think." But these days? "I don't care about it anymore."

In some contexts, not getting worked up over others' opinions and criticism can be a mark of healthy self-confidence. In this case it's more like Ariana Grande is simply weary of anyone suggesting that the myriad reckless choices she's provocatively indulging might not be as awesome as she insists they are.

Ariana is absolutely infatuated with the idea of embracing—and I do mean embracing—dangerous men who make her feel daring. And she's urging her fans to become similarly obsessed.

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Gwen StefaniGwen Stefani Review: This Is What The Truth Feels Like

Album Review

Shattered love. Blossoming love.

That's the stark thematic contrast found on Gwen Stefani's first solo album in a decade, This Is What the Truth Feels Like. In one old-school, Madonna-like pop song after another, Stefani unpacks the heartbreak and disorientation she experienced in the wake of her divorce from Bush frontman Gavin Rossdale after 13 years of marriage (upon discovering his affair with the family nanny). Mingled amid those mournful, melancholy musings are songs about falling for fellow Voice coach and country crooner Blake Shelton.

Never mind that Shelton's marriage to country star Miranda Lambert recently dissolved amid acrimonious allegations of cheating. And that's not ancillary (read: gossipy) information here. It's merely a sobering reality that's difficult to push out of your mind while listening to often-fragile Gwen getting drunk on the joys of a fresh love.

Pro-social Content

"Used to Love You" navigates Ms. Stefani's pain upon discovering that her husband had been cheating on her. "I thought I was the best thing that ever happened to you," she unloads. "I thought you loved me the most." Later she says of Rossdale's choices, "You thought/There were no boundaries/ … I guess nobody taught you/Nobody taught you how to love." Similarly, "Red Flag" laments not seeing warning signs in her marriage and recognizing them for what they were. "Naughty" alludes to catching her husband in his infidelity, after which she tells him, "No matter how hard you try, you're never washing out the stain/Because you're addicted, so addicted to the shame."

"Me Without You," then, is a post-divorce empowerment anthem that explores Gwen's journey to rediscover herself ("I can finally be myself, be myself/ … I forgot how good it felt, good it felt"), while "Make Me Like You" includes honest lyrics describing her hesitancy to plunge into a new relationship ("I really like you, but I'm so scared/Why'd you have to go and make me like you?"). And there's more introspection on "Truth," where the singer ponders how people might respond to news of her new relationship ("I really don't wanna embarrass myself/And no one's gonna believe me, not even myself/And they're all gonna say I'm rebounding"). "Asking for It" asks if her new man is willing to accept her, weaknesses and all ("Are you sure you wanna love me?/ … I know that it's a lot to handle me/ But it, it is, but it is what it is/It's all a part of my broken history").

Objectionable Content

Grief, meanwhile, loiters precariously close to bitterness on "Used to Love You" as Gwen Stefani admits, "I don't know why I cry/But I think it's 'cause I remembered for the first time/Since I hated you/That I used to love you."

By today's standards—even as they're defined by yet another popular Voice judge, Adam Levine—Stefani never ventures too far into explicit naughtiness. Still, her playfully suggestive lyrics are hardly mysterious in their sexual meanings, either. "Misery" proclaims, "You're like drugs, you're like drugs to me," then practically begs a man to come over for a tryst ("So put me out of my misery/Hurry up, come see me/ … At the door/I'm thinking things I never thought before/Like what your love would taste like/Give me more").

More of the same fills "Your My Favorite" ("The way you kissed me wasn't typical/Take me out of my body, something spiritual/Think I need seconds, maybe thirds or fourths"). Still more smooching fans physical flames on "Where Would I Be?" and "Make Me Like You." "Send Me a Picture" flirtatiously, suggestively pleads, "Send me a picture right now," one with "no filter" and one that will "show me what you're doing, boy."

Stefani's description of what truth is (on "Truth") makes it all about emotion as she equates certainty with feelings ("So this is what the truth feels like/ … And I'm feeling it, I'm feeling it/Something about this just feels so right, alright"). Guest contributor Fetty Wap defines a successful romantic relationship in materialistic terms on "Asking for It" ("Baby, let's fill the swimming pool with money/Make it splash in, yeah, baby").
Gwen also proclaims that she's seen and done it all, including drugs ("Shook it, stirred it, smoked it/More than I can count").

Summary Advisory

By the time I finished listening to This Is What the Truth Feels Like, I felt like a protective older brother reacting to news that his little sis was being manhandled by life's big baddies. On "Rare," Gwen Stefani vulnerably admits, "I am broken, I am insecure/Complicated, oh yeah, that's for sure/I feel worthless, I've been hurt so bad/I get nervous that you won't love me back."

That's a precarious precipice, for sure. And it's like she's not even aware of the danger. Because when she's not articulating the agony her ex-husband put her through, she's all in—both emotionally and, it would seem, physically, too—for the new guy she herself has admitted will be seen as her "rebound."

Stefani insists that she can feel the truth of her latest relationship, and she desperately wants to believe it will be the real deal this time around. But feelings are flawed barometers of solid substances such as truth—both for pop stars like Gwen Stefani and for all of the rest of us who internalize the familiar-but-still-problematic philosophy she espouses.

If it feels so right, it can't be wrong, she gushes.

And while one would hope that such a seasoned artist would have been through enough to recognize the peril of capitulating to that old lie … perhaps hope is not always the best strategy.

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