A.J. McLean - Have It All (2010)
If I had to pick, I’d say that A.J. is my favorite member of the Backstreet Boys. He’s definitely my favorite BSB singer: emotive, attention-grabbing, equal parts menacing and heartfelt. He could nail the nasty dance-jammers and tender ballads with equal skill, which is not something you can say for Kevin or Howie. I feel like he got pegged as the “bad boy” of Backstreet simply because, visually, he looked like a dude with a history: he was always wearing those glasses, that beard. He never looked particularly happy. There was something else going on with him, good or bad. Your eyes were drawn to him.
If I were to go out on a limb here - and forgive me for this, thanks - I would call A.J. the Dennis Wilson of the Backstreet Boys: the coolest and “baddest” member whose well-publicized personal issues masked some real, real talent. As much as I dig A.J., I wanted to adjust my expectations for his 2010 solo release Have It All. Nick and Brian’s albums weren’t my cup of tea, and I had no reason to suspect A.J.’s would be any different.
Oh, thank goodness I was wrong. So wrong! Have It All is fun, hilarious, goofy, catchy, exciting. Without any doubt, the best Backstreet Boys solo album, and among the best records related to anything Backstreet Boys.
Not unlike Welcome Home following Never Gone, Have It All at first listen feels like the Boys’ 2009 release This Is Us (which we will cover very soon, do not worry): modern end-of-the-2000s dance pop. But you can already feel the difference: lead track “Teenage Wildlife,” co-written once again by JC Chasez, feels glitzier and sillier than anything the Boys would record. Left to his own devices, A.J. hams it up a little more. More ad-libs, more howls, more yelps. The kinda stuff boring ‘ol Brian Littrell would never let him do. Get bent, dad!!
Have It All's best moments come when A.J. throws away any semblance of delivering a standard dance-pop record and starts doing whatever the hell he wants. “Gorgeous” is an excellent Prince homage; “Drive-By Love” and “What It Do” are cheeky cheese-rockers that are impossible to take seriously; “Love Crazy” is a sex-obsessed Motown parody. On the other side of the coin, “I Quit” is a better and funnier version of Unbreakable’s piano-pop, and “Sincerely Yours” and “I Hate When You’re Gone” are solid uncrappy ballads.
And then, right when you think it’s all over, you get the bizarro alter-ego club anthem “Mr. A.” “When I walk into the club, everybody shouts hooray. Hey!” Whistles, metal guitars, and a chorus that borders on pop-punk. A.J.!
The Backstreet Boys would never condone material this oddball, this corny, this crude. A.J. is the one Backstreet member who knows how to utilize the blessed freedom he’s been given: big enough to record a solo album with JC Chasez and Max Martin collaborators Carl Falk and Kristian Lundin (who, it should be noted, ended up working with One Direction just a year later), but one that nobody would listen to outside of Backstreet diehards. He could do whatever he wanted to, and he did.
If you’re looking for Backstreet Boys’ secret gem, this one is it. Yes, it’s completely over the top and some of the dancier tracks are less interesting, but who cares? I’d take that over dullsville Nick and Brian anyday.
Thank God for you, A.J. You sleazy, strange uncle. Carry on, brother.