In 2016, it’s hard to underestimate how critically derided Charlie Puth’s pop trajectory was.
“If you’re one of the people who did not like Charlie Puth’s first album, Nine Track Mind, you’re not alone,” wrote Vulture this year, in a piece reintroducing Puth for the release of last week’s sophomore album, Voicenotes — they go on to note that his debut has one the lowest ranking Metacritic scores ever (fifteenth lowest). It’s not surprising given Puth initially came to fame as a viral sensation on Youtube, an origin story categorically looked down upon by critics.
Nine Track Mind hovers at 37 on the review aggregation site, with seven critical reviews that all skew negative, and 415 user scores — 209 of them negative — for a 4.5/10 user score. When the album came out, Spin gave it a 3/10 on their review scale, and Pitchfork went even lower with a 2.5 score out of 10 score in a breezy shrug of a review the site is known for doling out, particularly when it comes to pop. Even the generally gentle, even-handed All Music gave the record 2 out of 5 stars, writing that the songs “seem to mimic the idea of genuine emotions instead of delivering them.”
In the pop world, where emotion is everything, this was a serious problem. But, that idea about Puth originated mostly from one song.
Looking through the archives of 2015, scanning for what critics deemed to be one of the worst songs of the year, one track kept cropping back up: Charlie Puth and Wiz Khalifa’s “See You Again” from the Fast And Furious 7 soundtrack. Publications like Complex, Jezebel, Inverse, Rap Radar all included it on their worst songs of the year list, even as the song continued to rack up commercial accolades that had never been seen before. It surpassed the viral sensation “Gangam Style” on Youtube, and eclipsed Billboard records for weeks spent at No. 1, eventually landing at twelve consecutive weeks, the longest a “rap” song (word to Wiz Khalifa) had ever occupied that top slot.
Surely, the song’s homage to the late Paul Walker and connection to the Fast And Furious franchise had something to do with its emotional resonance — but that was also its Achilles heel. To make a song that so blatantly capitalized on one of the most emotional celebrity deaths in pop culture history of late seemed so heavy-handed that even Puth’s story about writing the song after losing a friend of his own couldn’t save it. Also, let’s be frank — the song sound like a PlayDoh version of grief, rudely interrupted by a couple typewriter stagnant verses from Wiz Khalifa. Khalifa’s presence catapulting the song into record-breaking positions for “rap” songs on the Billboard charts further stoked ill will, especially considering how little it seemed to deserve those accolades in the hip-hop realm. In response, critics panned it almost universally.
Given this context, it is enormously surprising to discover that just about three years later, critics have done a 180 on Puth. In 2018, his new album is not even being met with middling praise, but actual critical adulation. What!?