Granted, we haven’t heard her new album yet (read: it hasn’t leaked yet), but it seems like everyone is doing Janet Jackson better than Janet these days (here’s looking at you Cassie). The title track from Jessica Simpson’s new album A Public Affair, may sport a guitar riff lifted straight from Madonna’s “Holiday,” but the rest of the song—breathy vocals, cheery, almost sickeningly sweet melody, mid-song giggle, Diana Ross reference—is classic Janet. Ironically, though, the tracks on A Public Affair produced by Janet’s longtime collaborators, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, aren’t dance-pop at all; the duo’s three contributions are, surprisingly, country-inspired, the ostensible influence of Simpson’s acting debut in last year’s The Dukes Of Hazzard.
The Adult AC of Simpson’s last record, In This Skin, seemed more suited for someone two decades older (the new album commits similar sins—see the Celine-style ballad “The Lover In Me”), so dance and country-pop feels like a better fit for the singer, who, unfortunately, seems to have an aversion to more soulful material. And while recent dance-pop efforts by the likes of Gwen Stefani and Nelly Furtado have skewed urban, Simpson opts for unadulterated nostalgia. “B.O.Y.” and “If You Were Mine,” which piles on the sugar in heaps, are deliciously ‘80s without being overly chintzy-retro, “Walkin’ ‘Round In A Circle” cribs from Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” while Simpson takes a cue from Rihanna’s “S.O.S.” and reinterpolates Dead or Alive’s “You Spin Me Round (Like A Record).”
Simpson reportedly wanted the song to be the album’s second single but faced resistance from her record label. In a bizarre move (mostly due to poor planning), “I Belong To Me,” an exclusive Walmart bonus track, will instead be the follow-up, a coup for the retail giant and a big fuck-you to competitors and unknowing fans who pick up the album anywhere else. The song is an obvious rip of Mariah’s “We Belong Together,” but succeeds at giving the singer a potential hit that might actually have long-term appeal. (The album’s only other urban track, the Scott Storch-produced “Fired Up,” lacks both inspired production and clever songwriting, an ugly blemish on what is otherwise one of Simpson’s more consistent efforts.)
But what does it say that Simpson’s best work to date is so shallow? Aside from a cover of Patty Griffin’s “Let Him Fly,” lyrics about “mixed feelings and misgivings” on “The Lover In Me,” and a reference to being “married” to memories on “Back To You,” A Public Affair makes few allusions to her very public marriage to—and separation from—Nick Lachey. While her famous ex’s latest album is overtly autobiographical, A Public Affair is decidedly professional-minded, concerned more with getting the reality TV star back on the radio than with exorcising her demons or making her private affairs public.