“Hate me or love me/that’s just the way I am” poster boy Charlie Puth croons on the opener to his second album ‘Voicenotes’. A clichéd sentiment, but one that rings true for the noveau-prince of pop. Cutting his teeth as a YouTube sensation and a protégé of Ellen DeGeneres (back in 2011 she signed him to her label after seeing him cover Adele), in 2015 Puth shot to the A List with his feature on the Fast and Furious soundtracking ‘See You Again’. What followed was his doo-wop flop of a debut album, ‘Nine Track Mind’, which seemed hurriedly rushed out to capitalise on his tweenage appeal. But critical acclaim (or lack thereof) aside, the record sold hundreds of thousands of copies, cementing Puth as a mainstay of pop.
Now a few years on, Puth has returned for the follow-up to his hasty debut. On his second album he’s stepped away from the slushy love ballads, revealing that this was due to “people nudging [me] in a direction that I didn’t want to go in”. Instead he recounts being spurned by an older woman (‘BOY’), snogging somebody who isn’t his girlfriend (‘How Long’) and seducing a girl who already has a boyfriend (‘Empty Cups’). In short: Charlie’s all grown up.
Opening with the overdriven riffs of ‘The Way I Am’, in general ‘Voicenotes’ canters forward, barely stopping for breath. It’s a showcase of Puth’s songwriting skills which – although we knew they were there (he’s previously written for Jason Derulo and Liam Payne) – didn’t shine through on his debut. Sure, sometimes it verges into the sickly saccharine (‘Through It All’ nicks a piano line from Randy Newman and some Disney strings, and drops a sticky vocal line on top of them, and collab with American folk singer James Taylor ‘Change’ is a dreary cliché) but then there are the moments of pop brilliance.
‘Attention’ boasts a slinky ’80s funk bassline, which crisply punctuates Puth’s schmaltzy vocals, and the old-school R&B of sultry Kehlani duet ‘Done For Me’ make it a radio-ready bop. Throughout, sparkling production (done entirely by Puth himself) lifts tracks like ‘BOY’ and ‘Empty Cups’ from what could just be cut-and-dry pop hits, instead adding twinkling synths and bucketloads of bass.
On ‘Voicenotes’ Puth doesn’t always get it right; but for the most part he’s managed to shed his squeaky-clean reputation. After the beige offering of his debut, album two puts his stellar songwriting and cheeky lyrics front and centre, and in doing so, starts to carve him a place as a popstar in his own right.