When former child stars grow up, they tend to shout it at the top of their lungs. They curse gratuitously, work bedroom boasts into their music and leave a trail of Instagram thirst traps—anything to put some distance between them and the squeaky-clean idols they used to be. At times that transformation (and the accompanying scrutiny) is not so fun: just ask Nick Jonas, who must repeatedly explain what exactly happened with that purity ring while also enduring thinkpieces about the amount of hair on his derrière. Yet it’s also necessary: as Jonas recently told EW, the “stigma” of his Jonas Brothers and Disney channel associations kept him from getting work in Hollywood, where artists must either grow up or get left behind.
Now, after a sexed-up Top 10 hit (“Jealous”) and a pair of closeted-bro TV roles put some edge in his image, Jonas is free to do what he couldn’t on two different self-titled albums: be himself without explanation or proclamation. His new record, Last Year Was Complicated, grows into the neon pop-R&B sound of 2014’s Nick Jonas while adopting a show-don’t-tell approach to maturity on songs like with the break-up toast “Champagne Problems” and the Max Martin-produced “Under You,” whose similarities to Taylor Swift’s “Style” would be more troubling if the track wasn’t just as much fun.
With his adult-man bonafides established, Jonas is moving onto more important things—like trying to earn his #woke badge (“Don’t want to blame you for it, ’cause that’s what we ask of you,” he tells scantily clad women on “Good Girls”) and getting tangled up with Tove Lo on the lead single “Close.” Over that song’s glacial beat, Jonas contends that “space was just a word made up by someone who’s afraid of getting close,” but he spends the rest of Complicated being exactly that someone. (Perhaps that’s because “Close,” co-written by the Top 40 wonder team of Julia Michaels and Justin Tranter, is one of only two tracks Jonas had no hand in writing.) He’s torn between the freedom of bachelorhood and a relationship on the Beyoncé-quoting “Bacon,” which gets a welcome assist from Ty Dolla $ign and is surprisingly not a sex metaphor. Elsewhere, on the moving ballad, “Unhinged,” he gives his insecurities a dressing-down: “I’m afraid of finding out that I might be right for you … and I can’t decide what I want.” Jonas might have “champagne problems” in the Meghan Trainor sense—woe is the hot, rich 23-year-old with no shortage of women knocking at his door—but it speaks to his performances and songwriting that he makes those issues sound so engaging here.
Still, Jonas hasn’t completely scrubbed Last Year Was Complicated free of any signs of conscious rebranding. The first track, “Voodoo,” opens with Middle Eastern instrumentation and a hiccuping beat that so strongly evokes Timbaland, you’d think Jonas had been studying the playbook of Justin Timberlake with LSAT-level focus. There are also some chest-pounding moments of machismo that may elicit eye-rolls: He brags about loving “you like a grown-ass man” on “The Difference,” which is a dubious claim from anybody who has to announce it.
Thankfully, Jonas has grown enough as an artist to know that he’ll have far better luck with listeners—and maybe the ladies—with slyer come-ons like “I go from touching you with both hands / to touching you with no hands” that leave the details (and exact configurations) to the imagination. That line comes from the chorus of “Touch,” whose campfire guitars and off-kilter synth bass spark the album’s most immediate connection. When he sings “I want to get inside your brain” during the pre-chorus, that’s a solid indication of where the song will be when its three minutes are up. So what if his personal life is complicated? Enjoying his music has never been simpler.