When Jesy Nelson announced that she was leaving Little Mix last December to protect her mental health, it felt like a genuine sea change for pop. Despite fans’ understandable disappointment at her departure, her decision to take care of herself, and to speak up about the extreme pressures of life in a successful girl band – tortured by comparisons with her thinner bandmates and online abuse, including a characteristically cruel comment from Katie Hopkins that Nelson said led her to overdose – were met with wholehearted compassion and admiration. The potential for real freedom seemed to lie ahead.
Almost a year on, that feeling has dissipated as Nelson’s solo career – a long-teased concept finally realised today with the much-delayed release of her debut single – has succumbed to a dispiriting lack of imagination. It’s a full house of cliches. She is, as she has said in many interviews, finally making the music she wanted to make, inspired by R&B and rap, after a decade doing pop. Each new glossy cover story gracelessly twists the knife a little deeper with her former bandmates – they apparently haven’t spoken – to keep the headlines buoyant. Nelson, who won a National Television award for her 2019 documentary Odd One Out, about her mental health struggles, insists in every new interview that she is happier than ever now she is a solo artist. The latest, for Glamour UK, finds her saying she no longer needs diets and lip fillers to be happy. In the images, her midriff is toned, her lips unnaturally plump.
I find it hard to criticise Nelson for this. She is clearly vulnerable; I hope she really is happier. These are moves drawn from a tatty old industry playbook that has never produced much in the way of success yet gets pulled out time and time again. Save for Robbie Williams, Harry Styles and Beyoncé (in a different stratosphere to her more parochial UK peers), hardly any former girl- and boyband stars have sustained the sparkle of their alma mater into a solo career. If that playbook has been upgraded, it’s to trade on the language of mental health and self-help, framing going solo as an act of emancipation and a redemption narrative. Yet it’s perfectly clear that the pressures remain the same, if not greater, out there alone without the buffer of bandmates.
All this might have been moot if Nelson had returned with a great song to insulate her from those pressures, but she hasn’t. Long hyped, but repeatedly pushed back apparently because guest star Nicki Minaj was too busy with her cousin’s much-disputed testicular issues to record her verses, Boyz heavily interpolates P Diddy’s 2001 hit Bad Boys for Life, and even comes with a virtual shot-for-shot remake of the video. It’s a strange decision given that most core Nelson and Little Mix fans would have been in their infancy, if born at all, when the original was released, and immediately dims the chances of Nelson establishing her own identity as a pop star. It doesn’t help that it also sounds a lot like earlier hits by another X Factor alum, Cher Lloyd.
The elements of the song that feel true to Nelson are its most unfortunate ones. Her vocals have an offputting helium sneer to them. Most of the time, it’s hard to understand what she’s singing. Following along with the lyrics sheet, that might be for the best. There are leg-crossing allusions to a guy liking her “raw, baby, sashimi”. It also fetishises men who are “so hood, so good, so damn taboo”, and the video shows Nelson and a coterie of Black men and women terrorising a Nice White Neighbourhood. She has frequently faced accusations of blackfishing, altering her hair, lips and skin tone to appear racially ambiguous, and singing in a blaccent. (Meanwhile, her former bandmate, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, has made her own acclaimed documentary about her experiences of racism and feeling like the least-favoured member of Little Mix.)
In August, Nelson told the Guardian she wasn’t aware that people felt that way and “would never want to offend anyone”. Yet her debut single toys recklessly with her assumed and unearned proximity to Black culture. In the original video, Ben Stiller cameos as an aggrieved neighbour who wants to put Diddy in his place but also suck up to and hang with him, a prescient vignette into America’s relationship to rap and to Blackness. In Nelson’s, Diddy knocks on her door, wags his finger about her delinquency, and wishes her luck. What was a funny, sharp moment is turned into a prop. (Amusingly, one outfit Nelson wears in the video, a bedazzled union jack bikini worn with a bandanna and flat-ironed hair, recalls the early looks of Victoria Beckham’s very ill-fated solo career, which also pilfered uncomfortably from rap.)
Boyz has an odd message, too. Nelson has said that bad boys have caused her no end of romantic pain, and she wonders why she always goes for them. The lyrics could have subverted that state of affairs – digging deeper into her attraction, mocking their posturing, sending up trite gender roles – but instead they take route one. It’s dated and does her a disservice. In the video, Nelson is supposed to be a neighbourhood hellraiser, affronting good taste and staid norms. But her solo career already feels as though it’s started in a dead end.