An R&B direction is a tried-and-true way for young, mostly white pop stars to give their more clean-cut personas more edge. Charlie Puth is the latest to try this route, and while his efforts on Voicenotes are valiant, he still has a bit more work to prove he can cut his teeth with the Justin Timberlakes and the Nick Jonases of that over-saturated world.
Recorded entirely on his “little Pro Tools rig with a MIDI keyboard and a microphone,” the album’s homemade feel gives it intimacy and warmth. This proves effective for the Eighties and Nineties R&B influence that pervades each note. The seductive Kehlani duet “Done For Me” connects to those influences with the most efficiency as the pair croon to one another over a nightcrawling, shades-at-night Eighties synth riff. Elsewhere, the slinky basslines on “Attention,” “Empty Cups” and “How Long” make for perfect slices of radio-soul-pop.
The album’s ballads slog down the momentum, each a little more forgettable than the last. Boyz II Men help add a bit of proper R&B nostalgia despite Puth getting lost in the group’s angelic harmonies. Later, James Taylor’s voice is a welcome bit of silkiness, even if the lyrics to the well-intentioned “Change” verge on cloying as the pair repeatedly beg “Why can’t we just get along?” Following the sleazy fun of “Empty Cups” comes album closer “Through It All,” finishing the things with a try-hard whimper.
From the moment he landed at the top of the pop charts with the Wiz Khalifa collaboration “See You Again,” Puth positioned himself as a keen pop songwriter to be reckoned with. Where his debut album that followed, Nine Track Mind, stumbled in its efforts to give him an identity in a sea of bright-eyed male pop stars, Voicenotes feels like a step, at the very least, in the right direction.