Meghan Trainor breezes past troubles on "Title," the debut album that follows her 2014 smash "All About That Bass," which spent eight weeks at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100. Last month it also earned Grammy nominations for record and song of the year.
A cheeky doo-wop throwback that starts out with the singer admitting she "ain't no size 2," "All About That Bass" wooed fans by the millions with its old-fashioned sound — a welcome standout on dance-dominated Top 40 radio — and its ostensibly self-affirming message.
"Every inch of you is perfect from the bottom to the top," Trainor sings, just after she calls out fashion magazines for presenting unrealistic images of female beauty.
Yet "All About That Bass" attracted criticism too for its blithe dismissal of "skinny bitches," to use Trainor's phrase, and the regressive sexual politics of a song that champions a larger body size at least in part because "boys like a little more booty to hold at night."
The song also raised suspicions, in the year of Iggy Azalea, about the racial appropriation at work in Trainor's singing style.
But if any of that controversy alarmed the 21-year-old, she certainly doesn't show it on "Title," which basically offers a dozen variations on "All About That Bass" (including "Lips Are Movin'," another Top 5 single). Each song is as cheerful and crafty — and as vexing — as Trainor's breakout hit.
Over a bouncy refashioning of the groove from Dion's "Runaround Sue," she pledges to be "the perfect wife" in "Dear Future Husband," as long as her man does right by her.
At first, Trainor seems to be sketching a union of equals. "You got that 9-to-5 / But, baby, so do I," she sings, "So don't be thinking I'll be home and baking apple pies." Soon, though, she's shoring up more conventional ideas about a woman's role in a marriage: "You gotta know how to treat a lady / Even when I'm acting crazy."
The same goes in "Walkashame," which opens on an image of Trainor, her pants on inside out, heading home nonchalantly after a one-night stand. "Neighbors stare," she sings against the honk of a baritone sax, "I smile and wave 'cause I just don't care."
But the regretful chorus shows she does: "My daddy knows I'm a good girl / We all make mistakes in the drunk world."
There's room, of course, in a pop song for these contradictions. In fact, there's room in these specific pop songs, so cleverly designed by the singer and her principal collaborator, producer Kevin Kadish, whom Trainer met during her brief stint as a professional songwriter in Nashville. (She only recorded "All About That Bass," the story goes, after they failed to sell the tune to an established artist.)
As a performer, though, Trainor never owns them.
Unlike, say, Bruno Mars — an avowed idol of hers who similarly mixes modes and attitudes — she doesn't give you the sense that she's thought through the opposing themes in her music: the individual versus society, modernity versus tradition, dependence versus independence. It all feels as unexamined as her use of certain vocal patterns typically associated with black singers.
Which would be fine, perhaps, if so much of this album didn't insist that each of us has a responsibility to live his or her personal truth.
"Everybody's born to be different / That's the one thing that makes us the same," Trainor sings over a Santo & Johnny-style slow-dance shuffle in "Close Your Eyes." "So don't you let their words try to change you / Don't let them make you into something you ain't."
One wishes "Title" gave us a better idea of the person resisting that pressure.
One and a half stars out of four