The critical press has to be running out of reasons to dump on Jason Derulo. Last year’s Talk Dirty, which fashioned bulletproof melodies to a string of impeccably produced bangers and ballads, found the singer excelling at both sides of his craft; critics fixated on the album’s prevalence of sexual content, earning Derulo finger-wagging indictments despite the fact that his attitude toward the opposite sex is a great deal more accommodating, and playful, than that of his peers. Truth is, the gag reflex many seem to experience when it comes to Derulo probably has more to do with a rejection of broader tendencies in pop music toward racial and gender stereotyping. A black, cis-gender performer, Derulo favors reedy falsetto and the formal gestures of mainstream pop rather than the R&B expected of him. His most like-minded contemporaries are guys like Flo Rida and Pitbull, but even they project more hardened, specifically masculine personas. Derulo can play the tough stud, but isn’t afraid of vulnerability or, crucially, letting his music affect softer textures to match.
Everything Is 4 recalibrates a bit, updating Derulo’s sound to current trends with 11 precision-tooled three-minute-and-change pop songs. But it also shuffles in nuggets of pop’s past, revealing an artist with both a finger on the zeitgeist and an appreciation of his forbearers. This was already clear from the album’s lead single, “Want to Want Me,” which embraces the ballistics-grade ’80s synth-pop of Taylor Swift’s 1989. Album track “Cheyenne” follows a similar blueprint, but lays the production on thicker and slows down the pace, emphasizing the paranoiac concerns of its emotionally charged, “Dirty Diana”-esque narrative. The endearingly goofy “Get Ugly” overflows with pitch-shifted vocals, mouth percussion, and cracking whip sounds, a mixture of late-’90s R&B and more contemporary EDM, while “Broke,” on which both Stevie Wonder (on harmonica) and Keith Urban (on banjo) join in to decry the burdens of financial excess over a working man’s sing-along, locates an almost utopian, shared blue-collar lineage in its bro country and gospel colorings.
It’s unfortunate that this meeting of the boys club pivots on calling out a gold digger, but there’s an increased presence of female guests elsewhere on Everything Is 4. “Try Me,” an ebullient pop ballad that bests Talk Dirty standout “Trumpets,” features a guest verse from Jennifer Lopez, who consents to Derulo’s advances over the track’s dancehall riddims and smooth, “Sexual Healing”-like groove. Teaming up with women also has the effect of deepening the character of Derulo’s songs, especially on the K. Michelle-assisted “Love Like That,” which encompasses the guilt felt by both the guy eyeing his best friend’s girl and the girl who returns those feelings—with a steamy climax benefiting immensely from both parties’ participation.
Occasionally, the more ambitious nature of Everything Is 4 reveals some of Derulo’s weaknesses, like his insistence on indulging straight R&B (which feels basic compared to the unique mode of genre-bending he usually works in), but stretching musically also leads to arguably the most exciting moment here, the funk rave-up of album-closer “X2CU.” Right up there with “Baltimore” as the year’s best Prince song (and in a year when Miguel’s released a single, no less), it’s a 1999-worthy pop-funk cocktail of slap bass, cavernous drum programming, spaced-out keys, and a devilishly catchy arpeggiated synth hook. While not as immediately radio-friendly as the more upbeat power-pop the album leads with, it represents a logical next step for a mainstream that made “Uptown Funk” the number one song in the country, while demonstrating Derulo’s still-evolving sensibility.