Since London-born Jay Sean debuted in 2003 as part of the Bhangra-driven Rishi Rich Project, he’s tasted massive commercial success in America, Europe, and Asia—but not without his share of bumps in the road. The singer-songwriter of Indian descent has gone from major label act to independent artist and back again, in the process experiencing promising streaks of hit singles followed by long, uncertain periods of scattered releases and limited visibility. Musically, he’s dabbled in a handful of styles, blending Punjabi-influenced melodies with pop rhythms on 2004’s Me Against Myself, incorporating R&B and hip-hop flavors on 2008’s My Own Way, and focusing on electro-pop with more recent singles such as “Hit the Lights” and “So High.”
Sean’s most internationally impactful success came in 2009 via “Down,” a catchy, uptempo ditty which found him interchanging light verse-and-chorus fodder with a prominent vocal-rap cameo by Lil Wayne. Topping the U.S. charts and making the Top 10 in 10 other countries, “Down” cemented his status as a promising new signee of Wayne’s Cash Money Records and was quickly followed by “Do You Remember” and the album, All or Nothing. In the four years since, he has released a handful of singles, each time with the promise of a new album. Ultimately though, 2010’s planned Freeze Time and 2012’s proposed Worth It All were shelved, with only a handful of songs from the sessions making it out on limited Japanese releases.
Neon, Jay’s fourth proper full-length effort, suggests that the stops and starts were, for the most part, worthwhile. Instead of returning with a mere rehash of the somewhat gimmicky sounds of “Down”—perpetuated to annoying heights on the 2010 single, “2012 (It Ain’t the End)”—he aims here to establish a more solid musical melange of pop, dance, and R&B. Primary producers J. Remy and ILLevn provide him with an eclectic range of rhythm arrangements and melodic components which allow his vocals to take the driver’s seat rather than merely going along for the ride on the “Passenger Side” (to quote one of the album’s weaker cuts).
Propelled by acoustic guitar strains against a shuffling urban beat, Neon‘s opening title track hearkens back to the feel-good finesse of early career tunes like “I Believe in You,” peppered with a more solid take on the memorable hooks of previous hits like “Tonight.” It segues nicely into the heartfelt “Luckiest Man,” a tender tale of regret set to vibrant, marching percussion and supple synth effects. Buoyant numbers like these are where Sean shines most brightly, with his amenable tenor voice serving as a capable storyteller supported by enjoyable melody lines and steady grooves. What’s more, he makes a noteworthy impression on the soulful midtempo jam, “Mars,” which brings to mind Usher’s “Climax” with slightly more pop-oriented undertones.
Tapping into the full-on dance floor zone he traversed on 2012’s “I’m All Yours,” Sean offers “Close to You,” a moody booty-shaker alternating between low-key verses and party-starting riffs. He also takes it to the clubs—albeit in a more streetwise fashion—with the kinetic “All on Your Body,” featuring a rap by Ace Hood. This is the one cameo on Neon that works, whereas Rick Ross’ appearance on the aforementioned “Mars” does nothing enhancing, and the contribution to “Breakadawn” by Busta Rhymes (undeniably a hip-hop legend) somehow misses the mark as well. Perhaps in the case of the latter, it’s because the track itself is a rather predictable exercise in radio hip-hop—which isn’t so much Jay Sean’s forte to begin with.
Most of the remaining selections on Neon are noteworthy in their juxtaposition of sing-along-worthy choruses, relatable lyrics, and tracks that work well for riding in the car with the top down. Whether showing sensitivity on the head-nodding “Miss Popular” or confronting hard truths on the pulsing “Deep End,” the vibe is consistently appeasing in tone and stylish in presentation.
All in all, Neon is proof that persistence can pay off when it comes to testing musical waters in the mainstream pop world. Although it has its moments of placing commercial interests over artistic depth, the album overall does a commendable job of serving mainstream-ready material with a fresh dose of creativity.