Jay Sean begins Neon feeling uncertain: “Am I chasing the wind? I’ll know at the finish line,” he sings in its airy title track, as if trying to reassure himself. Acoustic strums urge him to proceed, but even when cavernous drums hit and he claims that his risk paid off — “And everything’s neon,” he repeats — it’s an introduction that continues to sound timid. So does much of his new album.
Before Neon, his second U.S. release and fourth album total (out today, ), Sean shone as a sole example of how a British-Asian R&B vocalist can break worldwide. In 2009, a time when peers (Usher, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown) churned out dance hits to stay relevant, Sean’s debut U.S. single “Down” both fit in and stood out. As his still-boyish voice glided and popped effortlessly, the just-added Cash Money signee asked what felt like a no-brainer: “Baby, are you down, down, down, down, down?” In comparison, Neon is Sean preferring to act as if “Down” never happened.
Instead, Sean tries to avoids the club for slow-burning solitude reminiscent of “Ride It” and “Stay,” off 2008′s My Own Way. In Neon‘s best moments, this brings all attention to his still-boyish falsetto. At times, he’s also reverted back to acting convincingly as the standby: In “Miss Popular,” he channels Miguel while sounding happily tipsy. Set to a druggy beat, the despairing “Passenger Side” inspires Sean to painstakingly tick off how his love abandoned him for a richer man, one with a Bentley.
Unfortunately, as if required to concede to radio demands, Sean doesn’t hide out in his own world completely. The album ends on a confusing note, the fine but unremarkable reggae pop number “Sucka for You.” Lead single “Mars,” featuring Rick Ross, is better; the song reeks of cigar smoke, highlighting Sean’s yearning as he tries to lure a girl to starry bliss. (Well, sure.) However, penultimate track “Break of Dawn” (not counting bonus tracks) feels like a cruel joke. In this paint-by-numbers rap radio grab featuring labelmate Busta Rhymes, Sean’s barely recognizable thanks to a deadpan drawl and shout-outs to Patron. In Neon, reality bites.
Sean’s biggest gain may well be high-profile rap features like Rozay and Busta. However, their lackluster verses don’t add anything to Neon that Sean can’t do without, which shows how this pop star with U.K. and Asian fanbases is caught between two worlds. He’s still charismatic, and some of his new songs hew true to his former self, but Neon continues to suggest how his personality has faded since hanging out with Pitbull (“I’m All Yours”) and label boss Birdman (“Like This, Like That”) became obligations.
“I keep running, running, running back to it / Anytime that I think I’m there, it disappears just a little bit,” Sean sings in the title track. A few rotations in, that line especially rings true. He’s inched closer to sounding remarkable, but he’s also proceeding with too much cash-conscious caution.
Idolator Score: 2.5/5
— Christina Lee
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