SAN FRANCISCO — It’s possible that we have all misjudged Jessie J. While she was releasing chart-topping pop bangers like “Bang Bang,” “Price Tag and “Domino,” she’s been questioning who she really was.
At her show Saturday at the Great American Music Hall, she explained on numerous occasions how she let herself and her fans down by doing less and less of her own writing on her second and third albums, compared her attempts at success to toxic romantic relationships—she overlooked the art in order to be played on radio—and concentrated just as much on connecting with the audience with conversation, sometimes off-kilter, as performing. Throughout the evening, it became clear that Jessie J is still a woman who is figuring out who she is.
“I am not ‘Domino.’ I am not ‘Price Tag.’ I’m so much more,” she said.
The show came as Jessie J preps her fourth album, R.O.S.E., for release sometime next year. It follows a three-year break during which she has largely stayed out of the spotlight. Through numerous conversations and monologues akin to watching a one-woman off-Broadway stage production, she explained how the break was necessary to learn to trust her instincts, and create better art, even if it didn’t sell like her previous hits.
The sold-out crowd would grow quiet in moments like this, perhaps because it was not expecting the change of course.
Backed by a band and two vocalists, Jessie J kicked off the show with jazzy ballad “Who You Are,” the title track off her 2011 debut album. The first minute of the song was a slow burn, before the song exploded and had her testing out her powerful pipes. The crowd brought the song home by singing the last verse. Motown-tinged pop tune “Domino” followed, with many in the crowd still singing every word. The singer, marking the end of a short U.S. tour, was in a celebratory mood, thanking her team.
She followed that up with the funky new R&B tune “Real Deal,” from her forthcoming album. In fact, Jessie J completely ignored her second album, 2013’s Alive, and would play only two songs from its follow-up, 2014’s Sweet Talker. “Real Deal,” is a mid-tempo, Janet Jackson-esque tune, with a sexy guitar solo toward the end.
During a brief break—she needed the sound in her ear monitors fixed—Jessie J addressed some fans in the crowd, mentioned that the unevenness of the lighting in the room was throwing her OCD alarm, and asked people to treat each other with respect, perhaps referring to one person with a large sign who was blocking others’ views, and a possibly inebriated man who was shouting compliments. At other times she would mention how close she was to the crowd, ask audience members not to pull her off the stage, for people not to hold up their phones as lighters—”I’m over that, I want to look at your faces”—and to stop taking pictures and enjoy the moment. Some of these requests seemed more like agitated demands.
“Nobody’s Perfect” began like a coffee-shop singer-songwriter tune (a break from the 2011 album version, which was a true pop song), before giving Jessie J her diva moment, stretching the range in her voice, while her band sampled Led Zeppelin’s “Kashmir.”
She transitioned into another new track, “Not My Ex,” which she explained in a detailed story as being about leaving toxic relationships and seeing your partner for who he is and not whom you want him to be, and “Flashlight,” a Sia-penned song that Jessie J popularized on the soundtrack to Pitch Perfect 2. That bled into a cover of Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song,” after which she talked about the need to right the world’s wrongs and help others in need.
After performing another new track, “Think About That,” which was prefaced by Jessie J saying she had lost her way with her previous two albums, she sang a seemingly impromptu cover of “A Whole New World,” from the Disney film Aladdin, which was possibly the highlight of the evening. And with momentum surging, she next carried on a roughly 10- to 15-minute conversation with various fans while her band played a toned-down melody. The fans either shouted or were given the microphone to respond. The conversations covered work life, tattoos, travel and more. This part was a bit like attending a daytime talkshow. Finally, after one fan was getting around to talking about being a mother, Jessie J said that one of her goals in life is to be a mum, and dedicated “Mamma Knows Best” to the fan.
That kicked off a five-song conclusion with her bangers: “Bang Bang,” “Masterpiece,” “Price Tag” and “Do It Like a Dude.”
Overall, her set showed just how much of a chameleon Jessie J can be. She’s more of an R&B singer than a traditional pop star, yet can live in both worlds.
Follow Roman Gokhman at Twitter.com/RomiTheWriter.