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To say Jesy Nelson’s solo career has got off to a rocky start would be an understatement. This fact was never written in stone; many even had high hopes for the former Little Mix star. After all, plenty of ex-band members have enjoyed successful solo careers: Gwen Stefani, Annie Lennox, Robbie Williams, Lauryn Hill, Paul McCartney, Beyoncé, Liam Gallagher and, to varying degrees, the members of One Direction.
Yet somehow, Nelson’s launch has been one of the most disastrous attempts at going solo since Victoria Beckham traumatised a generation of fans – almost 20 years ago to the day – with “Not Such an Innocent Girl”.
When Nelson quit Little Mix, she said she had struggled with “the constant pressure of being in a girl band”. She’d spoken at length about her mental health, even made a BBC documentary about it, so it was easy to understand that she wanted out. During her time in Little Mix, right from her X Factor audition, she had been subjected to a particularly vicious kind of trolling. After Little Mix won the reality TV contest, she recalled in Odd One Out, the first comment she saw on Facebook was a vile comment about her appearance, telling her she “deserved to die”. She has spoken in interviews of how she became addicted to reading internet comments about her, and how her depression became so bad that she attempted suicide.
Nelson’s experiences were particularly unsettling due to the “girl power” message Little Mix have promoted since their inception. Theirs is an ethos of confidence, self-love, anti-bullying, pro-friendship – so knowing one of their members felt this way felt like the group and their fans had, through no fault of their own, failed. And it stands to reason that Nelson struggled to keep up appearances knowing what was waiting for her when she picked up her phone. So, when she announced in December last year that she had made the decision to leave the group, and that the rest of the band supported her decision, there was a palpable sense of relief. Not because she didn’t belong in the group, but because this was an inspiring public display of self-preservation. Nelson was saying her health and happiness were more important than wealth or success.
A surprise, then, when she posted an Instagram Story showing she was back in the studio less than two months after quitting the band. Most artists – Geri Halliwell, Zayn Malik – give it at least a year before setting out alone. Malik actually released his debut solo album a symbolic 365 days after announcing his departure from One Direction. Nelson’s fans barely had time to catch their breath before Nelson dropped the bomb that was “Boyz”. But Nelson’s past comments about quitting were careful in their wording. “I never said I’m coming out of the band to never be in the public eye again,” she reminded The Guardian in August this year. “I said I’m coming out of Little Mix because I could not deal with the pressure of being in a girl band, not that I can’t deal with the pressures of being in the spotlight or being famous.”
Regardless of what she said, no one can really begrudge Nelson for wanting to try and do things on her own terms. But still, “Boyz” should never have been released, for so many reasons. It’s a terrible song, on which a barely comprehensible Nelson sings like Britney Spears doing TLC karaoke, lisping and gasping her way around a sample of Diddy’s “Bad Boy for Life”. Where Diddy’s original (which celebrated its 20th anniversary in July) was gritty, sharp and visceral, Nelson’s has been polished and autotuned to death. The lyrics – “I like them tattoos and them gold teeth/ Type to make me feel like I'm a baddie” – only become more excruciating when you consider Nelson’s public dating history includes the lovely Jordan Banjo from Diversity, singer Jake Roche (son of Shane Richie and Coleen Nolan), and Love Island contestant Chris “I’m like a polar bear” Hughes.
Then there's Nicki Minaj. Barely a month before the single dropped, the “Anaconda” rapper caused an international incident when she claimed to her hundreds of millions of followers that the Covid-19 vaccine had caused a friend of a friend of a friend’s balls to fall off, or something like that, prompting statements from the White House, No 10, and Trinidad and Tobago. Even without that, Minaj was a dubious feature given she’s currently being sued by the woman her husband, Kenneth Petty, was accused of raping when she was 16 (Petty pleaded guilty to attempted rape and served more than four years in prison). Minaj is accused of harassing and threatening the woman to get her to recant her allegation. As a result, her recent antics – including the vaccine claim – have been met with scepticism by those who believe she is attempting to steer publicity away from her legal dispute.
Dare we even broach the topic of the video? Forget “bad”; the “Boyz” video is a travesty, a grotesque caricature of what Nelson perceives Black culture to be. While accusations of blackfishing – when white people present themselves as Black or racially ambiguous by tanning, using Instagram filters, cosmetic surgery, hairstyles, or clothing trends pioneered by Black women – had tailed Nelson for at least two years, the “Boyz” video is a veritable appropriation catwalk. It attempts to emulate early Noughties hip-hop videos, showing Nelson alternatively wearing a bandana, braids and basketball shorts, and grills on her teeth. She often appears darker-skinned than the Black women, including Minaj, who feature in the video. It seemed like an attempt to emulate the Nineties nostalgia of Normani’s sublime “Motivation” video, but the end result was more like something Nelson’s fellow X Factor contestant Honey G would have come up with.
Music history is littered with examples of white artists – often female pop stars – using Black culture for clout. Often it coincides with the unveiling of the artist’s new, hypersexual self, such as Christina Aguilera collaborating with Redman for “Dirrty” or Miley Cyrus with her fourth album, Bangerz, which was created with the help of prominent hip-hop and R&B figures including Mike Will Made It, Tyler, the Creator, and Sean Garrett. In 2013, Lily Allen drew ire for her video accompanying “Hard Out Here”, in which she referred negatively to hip-hop cliches (“I won’t be bragging ‘bout my cars/ Or talkin’ ‘bout my chains/ Don’t need to shake my arse for you ‘cos I’ve got a brain”) while the camera zoomed in on a Black dancer as she twerked. It took Allen three years to concede to the cultural appropriation taking place.
“In many ways Nelson is relying on an age-old trick to make an otherwise unremarkable white artist relevant, or, in some cases, relevant again,” Mikki Kendall observed in The Guardian this week. “In every case this conversion to Black culture lasts just long enough to get some hit songs under a star’s belt before they move on to another cultural costume.”
Many have rightly questioned where Nelson’s team were in all this. While Nelson should not escape culpability, she is surely surrounded by industry veterans who have witnessed this kind of thing enough times to have said, “Hey, Jesy, maybe this video isn’t such a good idea.” But the way Nelson’s entire campaign has been rolled out has been chaotic at best, from the alarming cover photos she shot for Noctis magazine (who approved them?!) to the seemingly spontaneous Instagram Live she did with Minaj, in which they laughed over the rapper’s barbed comments about Nelson’s former bandmate Leigh-Anne Pinnock.
Reliable sources tell me Nelson has in fact been spoken to about appropriation in the past. There are also reports that Pinnock herself attempted to explain why the fact that Nelson’s skin had begun to appear darker than her own was problematic. We’ve seen the video in 2019 where Nelson’s white friend uttered the N-word as they sang along to Chris Brown’s song “Freaky Friday”, which she later deleted. We’ve seen the interview where Nelson was asked about the racist abuse Pinnock had received while in Little Mix, about which she seemed completely disinterested. And we've read the interviews (at least two in the last four months), where she has been asked about the blackfishing issue and feigned ignorance or shock at the very suggestion she might be appropriating Black culture. Plenty of opportunities to educate herself, apparently none taken.
Nelson has also failed to follow the cardinal rule of the singer gone solo, which is never be the first one to slag off your ex-bandmates. Laughing along with Minaj as she attacked Pinnock – who has yet to comment publicly on Nelson since her departure and recently became a mother for the first time – felt particularly egregious given everything Nelson has said about online bullying.
On Friday, the Official Charts will reveal how Nelson’s song has performed in the UK. She is currently on course for a Top 10 position. But you wonder how much of that has been generated by hate-clicks and shares by people who can’t believe just how bad the song is. It’s a novelty, not a career-launcher. So where does Nelson go from here?