Arriving a discreet amount of time after American Idol winner Kelly Clarkson's chart-topping debut, Thankful, and just before the release of their movie, From Justin to Kelly, Justin Guarini's self-titled album is, at the very least, positioned for almost certain success on a massive scale. Fortunately, though, Justin Guarini has more than just marketing and calculation going for it -- much like Thankful, the album is much better than might be expected, providing a smooth transition from his AmIdol roots into more adventurous musical territory. Of course, "adventurous" is a relative term when it comes to crafting an album that must appeal to as many different types of people as possible. At times, it just means putting a crunchy, slightly urban beat behind his signature American Idol songs like "Unchained Melody" and "Get Here" to give them a bit of an "edge" without straying too far from mainstream pop territory. But considering that RCA could probably sell millions of copies of an album that featured nothing but songs like these, the musical risks that Guarini does take are welcome and work surprisingly well. Most of the album takes its cue from urban and teen pop; indeed, songs like "Be a Heartbreaker," "I Saw Your Face," and "Thinking of You" mix those styles so seamlessly that they suggest what Justin Timberlake's Justified might've sounded like if he'd had a less forward-thinking production team than the Neptunes at the helm. Likewise, Justin Guarini's most progressive-sounding tracks, such as "Sorry," recall the futuristic spin on Michael Jackson's Off the Wall that the other Justin's album offered. Though it nods to Latin pop with "One Heart Too Many," the majority of the album sticks to an urban/teen pop/mainstream pop fusion that plays to Guarini's strengths as a performer and a persona, which is a savvy decision by the people behind American Idol. Along with its similarities to the variety shows of the '60s and '70s, the series' star-making process recalls old Hollywood's star system, where teams of experts would mold promising newcomers into archetypal performers, refining everything from their looks to the way they walked and talked. American Idol's team cast Kelly Clarkson as the girl next door who occasionally takes a walk on the wild side, and Guarini has been cast as a relatively chaste sex symbol. Granted, this role has been around since pop music's infancy, but on Justin Guarini the singer occasionally seems overly confined by it, particularly on the limp ballad "Condition of My Heart" and the album's low point, the cloyingly up-tempo "Inner Child." It's a little strange that Guarini's sex appeal is curtailed as much as it is, since he was generally considered the sexiest (or at least, most conventionally sexy) of the finalists, and also since Thankful made a point of emphasizing Clarkson's sexiness in a classy way. When Guarini does get to let loose, it makes for some of the album's best moments, such as "Doin' Things (We're Not Supposed to Do)," a sultry song that sounds both appropriate for a pop star in his early twenties to sing and for his preteen fans to hear; "If You Wanna" is a tougher, more urban-flavored song that is all the more promising because Guarini co-wrote it. In the end, this album isn't as surprising or diverse a debut as Thankful was, but its solid quality proves that the forces behind American Idol want their winners to make good pop albums, as opposed to one mega-hit single backed by 11 throwaway tracks. Justin Guarini might be calculated, but it's not cynical.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares
feat: Kelly Clarkson