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Last Year Was Complicated review: Nick Jonas wants to be your favorite pop star

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Is he more than just another post-Drake beta male?

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Nick Jonas was a child star, but he’s not the kind of performer you would think of as precocious. When I look back on his career to date, I’m struck by his workmanlike spirit. He was the reason for the Jonas Brothers’ existence and their musical core, a multi-instrumentalist (recent guitar solo flop be damned) who wrote a few songs on every album and broke out with a band of his own. As an actor, he was a quiet, mature presence on screen, a quality that’s extended to his adult roles as well.

And when he made his play for solo stardom and artistic legitimacy earlier this decade, he did it the way a conscientious student would tuck into a mammoth pile of homework, work that culminated in a solid self-titled solo debut in 2014. He’s a smart, savvy figure, a veteran of the business, and those qualities are what’ve allowed him to crawl close to the highest level of contemporary male pop stardom. Your talent doesn’t need to be incendiary if you know how to play the game.

His second post-reinvention solo album, Last Year Was Complicated, was released last Friday. Its one transcendent moment is the single "Close," a hypnotic collaboration with Tove Lo that makes perfect use of space and dynamics, and even that song reveals Jonas’ natural limitations. He uses every inch of his range, but his voice can only go so far; when he pushes it to the brink, it turns syrupy and clotted. When he delivers a climactic howl just shy of the three-minute mark, "close" becomes something like "glooooolse." Think molasses.

Like death and taxes, Drake is inevitable

That’s not a death sentence, of course — not everyone can sing like Abel Tesfaye. If Robin Thicke hadn’t completely fallen apart after "Blurred Lines," he could be making albums like this, collections of blue-eyed soul that lean on the liquid synths of Taylor Swift’s "Style" and The Weeknd’s Beauty Behind the Madness as signifiers of hip pop c. 2016. ("Touch," a filthy and percolating ode to having sex without using your hands, is pure Thicke.) Jonas made the album with a small team of writers and producers, many of whom chipped into his previous full-length: Jason Evigan, Sir Nolan, the rising Swedish duo Mattman & Robin. They keep the pace quick and the arrangements chugging, avoiding the mid-tempo trap that made that album such a slog. "Voodoo" sounds like vintage Timbaland, a welcome callback to the music that reigned supreme when Jonas was churning out pop-rock with his brothers, and "Under You" — the only contribution from Max Martin and his formidable team — is sleek and radio-ready.

I haven’t mentioned this album’s patron saint yet, largely because his influence is more subtle and pernicious. Like death, taxes, and sweat stains, Drake is inescapable and inevitable, and his tendrils snake their way through Last Year Was Complicated. You can hear a few musical flourishes cribbed from his playbook if you listen closely: the piano figure at the end of "Comfortable" is pure Noah "40" Shebib, and the throbbing "Good Girls" sounds like a caffeinated Thank Me Later outtake.

His presence is more readily felt in Jonas’ insincere sensitivity, the way he looks at himself and the women he loves. The second half of Last Year Was Complicated is a whirlwind tour past all the girls Jonas is trying to save, fix, and shape. "Take another photo / post it for the world to see," he mewls at the start of "Good Girls." "People that you don’t know / Who the hell you trying to please?" (The chorus is even worse: "When did all these good girls decide to be bad / Dancing up on the table, gettin’ back at your dad." Nick Jonas wants you to get off those tables, ladies!) He tells a girl she’s "way too uptight" on "The Difference," a quality that’s apparently keeping her from fully appreciating his love. "Comfortable" is built around an inventive sample of Allen Iverson’s famous "practice" speech, but the sentiment is anything but: Drake recorded a song saying the same thing — it’s even called "Practice!" — and slapped it on the end of Take Care half a decade ago.

It's basic decency as a marketing plan

It’s easy to understand the influence given the timing. Jonas is turning 24 in September, meaning he was just about to leave his teens behind when Take Care was released. I can’t imagine an age where anyone could be more receptive to the future 6 God’s drunk-dial whining and masterful passive-aggressiveness. But while Drake’s reputation has almost completely curdled post-Views — and deservedly so, given his lyrical immaturity — Jonas is being celebrated for putting a gentler, more open face on male pop stardom. He earned a lengthy and sympathetic cover story from gay magazine Out, who called him "well on his way to becoming the next Justin Timberlake" while detailing his LGBT friendliness and queer acting gigs. And in a piece titled "Nick Jonas Is Quietly Woke," The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz wrote that Jonas is, "certainly setting out to complicate the idea of what modern celebrity masculinity looks like."

Jonas seems like a thoughtful, nice dude, but you need to be more than thoughtful and nice to warrant that kind of praise. He talks a great game about inclusivity and the LGBT community, but it’s easy to make a show of your openness and versatility when you can fall back on a public record of dating Miss USA and sleeping with Kate Hudson. Asserting yourself as an ally isn’t groundbreaking. It’s basic human decency, and in Jonas’ hands — and in his abs, and his biceps, and his ass — it resembles a sharp marketing plan.

There's a difference between acting and loving another man

"It’s funny. I play a gay character on a TV show," said Jonas to Complex in February. (He’s actually played two: a closeted MMA fighter on Kingdom and an evil frat boy on Ryan Murphy’s Scream Queens.) "Whether it’s me or the character, at the end of the day it’s still my body, it’s still telling the story. It’s the character and his journey, but it’s my body, my lips, my hands." If you can’t tell the difference between acting and being in love with another man, you deserve to get fooled. He offered up this quote in the same interview, the woke version of the conservative "some of my best friends are gay" trope: "I have nothing to prove. I’m very comfortable in my own skin and I’m thankful to have as many close gay friends as I have, people who have been so supportive in my life, and have always been there for me."

Ignoring the qualities in Jonas we jump to denigrate in Drake feels like selective listening, though there are moments on Last Year Was Complicated that suggest Jonas is capable of greater introspection. He sounds truly pained on "Chainsaw," a power ballad about being made to feel so sick by a space you once shared with someone that you think about selling it. "Unhinged" is another vulnerable moment, one in which Jonas confesses, "I’ll be the first to admit that I’m hard to please." (And his attitude about sex and romance is refreshing when you compare him to contemporaries like Zayn and Justin Bieber. (He recognizes it can be fun, silly, and tipsy without being menacing.) I would rather listen to Last Year Was Complicated than Mind of Mine or Purpose. But hailing it as a great leap forward, or as indicative of some coming sea change in male pop sensitivity, feels like investing in narrative rather than execution.