Watching Demi Lovato slowly but surely wrest control of her career away from the Disney machine has been a joy to behold. After her 2008 debut, the Jonas Brothers-dominated Don’t Forget, each subsequent album has found her pushing more of her personal musical agenda and preferences, whether it was writing songs with John Mayer on 2009’s Here We Go Again, addressing her complicated relationship with her father on 2011 album Unbroken’s “For The Love Of A Daughter,” or turning to more sophisticated synth-pop sounds on 2013’s Demi.
Confident is an even greater step forward for Lovato, starting with the fact that it’s her first full-length released via Safehouse Records, the label she co-founded with fellow tween-pop refugee Nick Jonas. As its name implies, the album finds Lovato demonstrating musical and emotional poise. “Old Ways” asserts that she’s glad to be rid of past bad habits and won’t give in to temptation; “Stone Cold” wishes an ex well in his newfound happiness; and the feisty “Waitin’ For You” says in no uncertain terms that Lovato won’t tolerate bad behavior from those in her life and, in fact, will fight back if scorned. Lovato’s also self-assured about her sexuality, particularly on the saucy, self-centered title track and the unstoppable hit “Cool For The Summer,” an icy rush of electro-pop seduction in praise of fleeting romance.
The “empowered pop star” trope is a familiar one by now, but Confident’s subtly modern music, as well as Lovato’s strong and nuanced vocal performances, elevate the record. The cohesive album is a contemporary spin on some very classic genres—smoky soul-pop (“Wildfire”), sultry R&B (“Yes”), and languid hip-hop (“Waitin’ For You”)—with the occasional bombastic power ballad (“For You”; the Kelly Clarkson-esque “Lionheart”) thrown in for good measure. In fact, Lovato’s clear-eyed vision makes the more derivative Confident moments that much more obvious: The galloping, horn-plastered title track sounds like a sonic and thematic sequel to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl,” while “Kingdom Come” resembles Perry’s forays into hip-hop. (Iggy Azalea’s guest appearance on the latter is rather superfluous, even though she’s responsible for the lines, “You know Family Matters, what’s Carl without Harriet / Inseparable like Mary Kate and Ashley incredible,” which are either brilliant or insipid.)
The orchestral-tinted “Father,” which finds Lovato addressing her father’s 2013 death, underscores why she’s thrived as her music’s matured. Vocally, she sounds wrecked, grieving, emboldened, and inspired as she wrestles with her conflicting feelings, in a performance that crescendos to a gospel-choir-augmented apex. In the hands of other artists, “Father” might come across as schmaltzy or insincere; however, Lovato gives the song room to breathe and lets her lyrics sink in slowly, which maximizes their emotional impact. Confident is an impressive album by a pop star who knows what she wants—and also knows exactly how to get there.