Usually when I hear tragic news about a recording artist, I experience a quick shock, simultaneously shaking my head and letting out a numbing “damn,” before moving forward. Yesterday (July 24), after hearing about Demi Lovato’s emergency rush to a hospital following an apparent drug overdose (of what, is still being sorted out), I paused, dropped my phone, and started crying.
The day before, July 23, had been the seven-year anniversary of losing the vocal powerhouse Amy Winehouse. Unfortunately, I prematurely imagined a similar fate for Lovato, driving my pain for the 25-year-old talent even further. Being on age with Lovato, I essentially grew with her through TV screens and iPod minis, rather unapologetic about enjoying both her pop bops and matter-of-fact opinions. But I didn’t convert into a true fan—one who would end up traveling to Newark back in April to see her in concert—until she released Tell Me You Love Me last year.
While many will take the time out to analyze the drug addiction, insensitively labeling Lovato as the “new face” of such for quick clicks, I would like to use this opportunity to celebrate her underrated opus, especially while she remains here with us.
Tell Me You Love Me should rightfully be placed in the category of albums that represent a generation. It perfectly captures today’s perils of love and friendship for millennials, but only in a way that Lovato would be capable of pulling it off. Up until the album’s release, many pop artists had been getting away with using elements of R&B in their music, but not acknowledging those roots. What’s always been respectful and impressive about Lovato is how she embraces R&B, outright telling her fans and critics that TMYLM would indeed lean towards that genre.
On July 11, 2017, she made an earnest statement with the album’s first single “Sorry Not Sorry.” At that point, there had been cries from the industry and its fans that mainstream female pop was about dead—sans the glow of Rihanna in “Wild Thoughts.” Although I was initially reticent to “SNS” after a first listen, that thought quickly stomped its way out of my mind just like its hook and thumping drums to match. Although Lovato had a song called “Confident” (which itself is unorthodoxly catchy and left-field in its structuring for pop music), “Sorry Not Sorry” didn’t just read as confident, it managed to be about it.
“Sorry Not Sorry” not only worked as a great follow-up anthem for “savages” after Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” but also positioned Lovato in new territory. She had finally received a single that allowed for her to belt and go for it no-holds-barred, with the public unanimously embracing it as her first Top 10 hit since 2013. The choir behind her “payback is a bad bitch” lines, and the rounding use of a pulsating 144 beats-per-minute 808 drum, accomplished what Warren “Oak” Felder’s “GO!” producer tag set out. The song presented a former teen star finally getting adjusted to the realities of womanhood, feeling assured in the state of single life, ready to spring forward.
From there, albumwise, TMYLM deals with heartbreak in both a raw and triumphant light. The somber crying of the title track (and second single) continues on the gospel-R&B narrative, recalling the healing qualities of Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. Through the hurt, we hear Lovato doing what she loves best: singing with a passion. The chorus calling “oh, tell me you love me / I need someone / on days like this, I do,” all too relatable and consequently heart-wrenching in hindsight.
For an album meant to be therapeutic, Lovato’s refuge into R&B makes complete sense. Pop is usually uplifting as the universal language of love, but often in a broad manufactured sense. The answers are always there, and usually in a chorus tied up in a neat gold or platinum bow. R&B, on the other hand, allows more room for growth and a soulful introspection into the unchartered. There’s room for mistakes as long as your vocal delivery gives those “errors” justice.
TMYLM‘s fourth track, the slow waltzing oldie “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” best exemplifies that agency. In terms of album concept, one could relate the lyrics to getting over an ex, simply going through the motions before saying, “I’ve had enough, you’re actually lame AF!” For Lovato, she focused the energy of the song on getting over her destructive behaviors such as drugs, but wanted it to be applicable for everyone else for whatever their personal demons could be. Her vocal resonance on the track recalls the pain of Amy Winehouse, but lives up to the self-realizations expressed throughout the album.
It’s when we get to “Daddy Issues” that the fun starts again. With a revolving, loopy instrumental reminiscent of a pinball machine at Dave & Busters, Lovato tapped into the summer pop vibes she previously lulled with 2015’s “Cool For The Summer.” When it comes to determining the album’s best lyricism, “Daddy Issues” is at the top of the list with liners such as, “I get a little obsessive, a little aggressive, a little bit too invested,” drawing well on the song’s cause-and-effect premise. The stop-and-go wallop of the high-decibels hook gave a standard relationship hurdle a unique twist. “Daddy Issues” belongs in a John Hughes teen flick from the 80s, but one revamped for today, of course.
The gospel and 80s elements of Tell Me You Love Me borders the breakout solo success of George Michael’s Faith. The vocals are raw enough where you can tell the singer is working through personal strifes in the midst of their recording sessions. The album flirts with a maturing sexuality juxtaposed by a spiritual existence. It shows that growing through pain is the sexiest trait of them all. “Ruin The Friendship” is smooth sophisti-pop (a coffeehouse branch of quiet storm R&B) that embodies this vibe the best.
The follow-up to “Ruin The Friendship,” “Only Forever,” happens to be my favorite song of 2017, as I’ve profusely claimed on Twitter, multiple times. Whenever I hear its lullaby slowness, I’m transported to the ethereal cool of Aaliyah’s music, particularly “One In A Million.” Through Oak’s gliding production and Lovato’s laidback vocal earnesty, “Only Forever” plays as a song that I could see Timbaland and Aaliyah releasing today if the latter were still alive. The celebrity likes of Katy Perry and Kim Kardashian referred to Lovato as “Baby Girl” when sending their well wishes her way—”Only Forever,” in ways, signifies that moniker.
The track sequencing of Tell Me You Love Me adds depth to the concept of the album. Lovato reconciles with unrequited love and heartbreak, even the effects of being “friendzoned” by someone most would label a “fuckboy.” When the LP approaches “Lonely,” we see that love for Lovato is easily confused as an easy solution for security. For her public image, she’s always come across as independent and free-thinking, but that comes with a price to pay. Her dream collaborator Lil Wayne plays his part in a sizzurp-induced crooning that gives the perspective of her antagonist. Not only does his role suit the project, but it’s honestly one of his best guest appearances in a minute.
Next up is “Games,” the song most likely inspired by Lovato’s opening tour act Kehlani. Both singers have expressed how they’ve been inspirations for each other, as they both configure the current wave of modern feminists unafraid to express their opinions on industry fuckery. “Games” closely takes on the electro-hop&B highlight “Distraction.” Just like SSS, TMYLM ebbs and flows with its pacing, offering a multifaceted perspective to how those artist’s respective generation navigates dating.
By the standard album’s ending of “Concentrate” and “Hitchhiker,” Lovato reconciles with being in love all over again. Following the slower tempo of the title track and “You Don’t Do It For Me Anymore,” the artists accesses minimalistic soul singing she’s hardly tapped into in previous LPs. At the album’s conclusion, you feel the same way as we did with Rihanna’s ANTi: That segue from “Love On The Brain” to “Higher” to “Close To You” sending a similar message home.
Tell Me You Love Me is fascinating because it’s one of those albums released in the past few years that takes listeners to distinct periods of music. As mentioned before, it has elements of George Michael’s Faith, Amy Winehouse’s Back To Black, Rihanna’s ANTi, and Kehlani’s SweetSexySavage—all albums on which the artists immersed themselves in the music while plunging in the pits of vulnerability and self-reassurance. However, the main inspiration according to Lovato is Christina Aguilera’s Stripped.
Being an ex-act—a term attributed to child star actors-turned-singers, most from Disney—Lovato could relate to Aguilera’s 2002 coming-of-age where she embraces a new attitude in sexuality and artistry. While other ex-acts have used polarizing controversy to prove they’re all grown up, Tell Me You Love Me adverts that with genuine storytelling and a sensual sophistication. This all came full-circle when Aguilera paid homage back to Lovato by using a similar R&B direction for her album, Liberation. Noticeably, the legend’s underrated 2018 LP also includes a black-and-white headshot album cover, and “Fall In Line,” a rousing and soul-stirring duet with her pupil.
Looking back on Tell Me You Love Me, I guess the main reason why I cried yesterday was partly due to selfish reasons. It’s so typical for a writer to say “this album saved my life,” but here I am. At the time of its release, I had been going through the difficulty of ending a longstanding friendship due to a visceral mismanagement of my emotions and mental wellbeing. As I worked through my shit (and continue to do so), Tell Me You Love Me played in the background. Next to Daniel Caesar and his Freudian album, there wasn’t a current artist on age that I personally identified with who understood my ideologies of love and life—except for Lovato. Through each track, and their bright moments, I’m still able to heal, feeling it’s necessary to express gratitude to Lovato for granting that opportunity, simply hoping for more Tell Me You Love Me‘s in her near, healthy future.
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