Charlie Puth gets around. That’s clear, from looking at the upstart pop star’s long scroll of noteworthy collaborations, from a star-making meet-up with Wiz Khalifa in 2015 on “See You Again” to the tunes he’s co-written for Maroon 5, Jason Derulo, Pitbull and Liam Payne, to his 2016 debut album’s marquee duets with Meghan Trainor and Selena Gomez. On his follow-up, “Voicenotes,” he draws in a greater breadth of duet partners — modern R&B’s Kehlani, old-school R&B’s Boyz II Men, not-so-R&B’s James Taylor — to further establish his roots and bona fides as more than a bubblegum flavor of the month. Among his fellow artists, as well as fans, apparently, he’s a first-class charmer.
That may extend to his romantic life, as well, since “Voicenotes,” like some of the interviews and tweets that preceded it, makes it sound as if he’s cut quite the swath through L.A.’s ingenue population. He may not yet be a Taylor Swift when it comes to having his lyrics scrutinized for autobiographical dating details (either because he’s not quite at that superstar level or because he’s, you know, a guy), but attention will be paid to the new record’s hookup and breakup chronicles to see how they reflect his own public accounts of the sting involved in the end of dalliances with Gomez and Bella Thorne. Not that it’s a painful, or pained, record. “Voicenotes” may be pretty effective in chronicling the sexual paranoia of beautiful twentysomethings who just can’t trust each other not to trade up, but it’s also a pretty good time, just like the one you imagine Puth has been having, the occasional betrayal notwithstanding.
One area in his dating life he’s definitely pulled back on, in a manner of speaking, is in the courting of producers. He’s gone monastic on that front, reserving the primary credit strictly for himself on all but one of the new record’s 13 tracks. In interviews, Puth has said he was embarrassed by the “Nine Track Mind” release and that he intended to atone for it with “Voicenotes.” It takes a lot of hubris to say those big-name producers didn’t do you right and you can do it better all by yourself — but he’s right. The second album doesn’t have a whole lot more lyrical depth than the first, but it’s a huge improvement in nearly every other regard. In the physical edition’s liner notes, he writes, “This album was made entirely on my little Pro Tools rig with a Midi keyboard and a microphone … [If] anyone tells you that you can’t make hit records and an album that you are proud of without expensive studios, gear, millions of dollars or even other producers, they are wrong.” If his aspiration is to be a do-it-all producer-writer-artist like Ryan Tedder, then “Voicenotes,” fizzy as it is, suggests that Top 40-Renaissance-dude goal is within his grasp.
Like Swift before him, Puth seems to have a thing for the approximate or even exact year in which he was born, so there’s a lot of 1991 in “Voicenotes,” as the Boyz II Men guest shot would augur. More than 20 years on from their last hit, the vocalizers join Puth on an a cappella basis for “If You Leave Me Now,” which, with pleading lines like “I swear I’m gonna change,” is almost hilariously in the tradition of I’m-soooo-sorry-baby Boyz oldies like “On Bended Knee.” No, it’s not a cover of the Chicago song of the same name — although Puth has the chutzpah to throw in the line “You will take the biggest part of me,” which is apparently not covered by copyright.
The album includes another original song, “How Long,” that has the line “How long has this been goin’ on” as the hook; he’s a little shameless that way. Meanwhile, the duet with J.T., “Change,” has the distinct feel of M.J.’s “Man in the Mirror” even before Puth utters the phrase “Make that change.” Even without so blatantly underlining the homage, “Change” would still count as the only truly terrible song in the collection; as good as Puth is at solipsistic pop-R&B, that’s exactly how naive he sounds trying his hand at acoustic we-are-the-world balladry.
But when he’s rehashing the breeziness of late ’80s and early ’90s R&B and setting it to the rhythms of contemporary pop (which is most of the time), the former kid prodigy is on firm footing. As solid a programmer and one-man band as he is, he has a good grasp of when to introduce a “real” instrument. Mostly that’s Jan Ozveren’s funk-guitar riffs, which are plentiful through the first half of the record, although the chief appeal of “Attention” is Puth’s own phat bass part, which, rather nervily, is the sole accompaniment to his feathery vocals for most of the chorus.
Lyrically, he goes back and forth between being the aggrieved and the aggrievor — his quick stroll of a duet with Kehlani, “Done for Me,” allows them to switch off on both roles — in the language of a ladies’ man who’s none too pleased when the same shifty favors are returned. When it comes to songs about the ease and torture of trading partners on the star circuit, someone like the Weeknd is clearly better equipped to bring a sense of emotional heft to the proceedings. But as much as Puth wants to be taken seriously as a producer, he also seems OK with competing in the light middleweight division. If you ever suspected that being an in-demand pop auteur who’s being toyed with and dumped by mercenary starlets might be at least a little fun, “Voicenotes” is not too abashed about confirming that conjecture.