With David Guetta, what you see is what you get. His music professes to be nothing more than party anthems, wriggling, wormlike songs that will eventually find a home in the retirement community that is the Now That’s What I Call Music series. Their shelf lives will be long-lasting (surely you haven’t forgotten every word to Akon’s “Sexy B– ” already?). Inevitably some are horribly out of tune, out of time patrons at a karaoke bar in the East Village will be beating them to a drunken death decades from now. He is, at least through Top-40 goggles, one generation’s ABBA.
At the same time, Guetta must be praised for his crucial influence in the electronic music world. He has produced some of the most thrilling, genre bending music of the past two decades. He introduced the world to the sounds that echo throughout the clubs of France and Ibiza. Perhaps just as importantly, he has offered rappers and popstars alike the chance at conquering a new market; where would Kelly Rowland be today without “Love Takes Over?” Guetta has his hits, but he has his culturally ignored masterpieces (think Kelis’ “Acapella”) that more than balance the flops.
After stumbling into the pop world, however, Guetta established a formula that stuck: building a track first, and inserting the musician later. What makes Nothing But the Beat somewhat of an anomaly for him is that several of the songs seem to be a merciful return to his golden years. These songs have once again been built around the featured artists, a less slapdash and certainly more successful technique. As is Guetta’s trade, Beat is filled with the requisite stars-of-the-moment, both divas and rappers alike, but it seems far less cookie cutter than other chart-topping hits of the moment. Sadly, Guetta fizzles more often than he electrifies.
Guetta is at his best when he brings out the wild side of his featured artists. Aussie vocalist Sia, usually reserved and meek, steals the show with “Titanium.” Memorable in all the right ways, Sia’s voice wavers with unbridled precision. Her future producers would do well to note her beautifully strung-together lyrics and just-so-slurry vocals, a sort of counterpart to last summer’s “Bulletproof” by La Roux. “You ricochet / you take your aim / fire away, fire away / You shoot me down / but I won’t fall,” she cries as the beat whisks her away to a blissful pop castle in the sky.
On “Where Them Girls At,” Guetta unleashes the sonic force of Nicki Minaj on his audiences. Her pulsating rap goes punch for punch with her career-altering turn on Kanye West’s “Monster.” Here, Ms. Minaj slithers her way through Desi-accents and brilliant rhymes. Where her partner on the song, Flo Rida, fails to overcome the beat, Minaj not only conquers it, she takes its place. In fact, she so strongly exerts herself that the music entirely cuts out at times, ceding all control to her.
Usher gives a veiled performance on “Without You,” a song that takes listeners completely by surprise in its versatility. Guetta and the “Yeah!” singer transform the tune from a ballad to a club anthem and back again in a dizzying matter of seconds. Here, Usher’s voice adeptly navigates the bleeping of Guetta’s heavy pianos and synthesizers. It is the kind of song that makes one long for a hot summer night and a car with a thumping stereo.
Sadly, Guetta proves unable to keep from imploding on some of the songs that, on paper, showed serious promise. Jessie J, she of “Price Tag” fame (or perhaps you know her as “that girl with the bedazzled leg cast who the VMAs kept cutting off), is featured on the blandly unmemorable, “Repeat.” She withers away under the monotonous melody. Meanwhile, Akon’s “Crank It Up” falls meters short of the gleeful charm of the pair’s previous work together. Likewise, “I Just Wanna F” could easily be one of the worst songs released by Guetta to date. With Dev and Timbaland trading foolish, lazy rhymes, it should have been left on the cutting room floor.
It is worth noting that Nothing But the Beat comes with a second album containing tracks that are truly beat-driven. It’s easy to deduce that this is the album Guetta wished he could release, not just as a B-side. It is an entirely new, winning hand that Guetta adeptly plays.
On the second disc, he invites talented house DJs Avicii and Afrojack to the party. Tracks like “Lunar” (a record that probably makes electro-punks Crystal Castles seethe with jealousy) and “Sunshine” are trailblazing, thrilling, and cutting edge that, thankfully, are free of any heavy-handed, secondary vocalists. Some may call the tracks faceless, but not one song on the second disc falls flat. They don’t need a singer to bring them to life; that’s what David Guetta is there for.