Right Now I’m Obsessed with… Nick Carter’s 2002 album “Now or Never”
On the first #FreeBritney episode of Sinisterhood, we mainly cover the early career of Britney Spears, and, of course, if there is ever any mention of 2000s pop music, or pop music, or music in general — I bring it back to the Backstreet Boys.
Specifically, on #FreeBritney Part 1, I brought up Nick Carter’s 2002 Now or Never. Before I get into this, I owe it to you to tell you I LOVE THIS RECORD. I mean, I really love it. I know every word, every beat, every “yeahhhh yeahhhhh” freestyle croon. I could probably list the tracks from memory. That being said, like most things we love at 16, I grew up and saw it for what it really was. As delightfully poppy and fluffy this record is, that’s about all it is. It’s cotton candy for your ears. Delicious, not enough to sustain you, and definitely not something you should eat a lot of (unless it’s September at the State Fair of Texas, in which case there are no rules).
Released October 29, 2002, Now or Never was Nick Carter’s first solo album after his success with the Backstreet Boys. It debuted at #17 on the Billboard charts and, sadly but not surprisingly, neither of the singles, “Help Me” or “Do I Have to Cry For You” charted in the U.S.
I attribute this to two things: (1) just one week after Now or Never was released, Justin Timberlake’s smash hit debut solo album, Justified, was released, and (2) the record made no major leaps from what Nick was already doing with the Backstreet Boys. In fact, in an interview promoting the album, Nick admitted as much. “During that time, I decided to get in the studio and kind of start writing… from the beginning, I wasn’t like, ‘Can we do a solo album?’ I just started to write.”
What he wrote was simply another helping of what the Backstreet Boys had been serving up since 1997. By 2002, after the incredible success of Millennium in 1999, they had fizzled slightly with Black and Blue. Although that record has some great songs and an accompanying Burger King comic book and figurine promotional package, it was no Millennium and didn’t have its own “I Want It That Way.” The band then parted with their management, The Firm, with whom Nick chose to stay and promote his solo album. The BSB entity also sued the parent company of their record label, Jive, for releasing Nick’s record, claiming the company promoted the album at the band’s expense.
Clearly, none of them had listened to the record. Again, none of this is to say it’s a bad record. It’s not. It’s fine. But that’s the problem. It’s not excellent, and Justified was. It’s like doing a flute solo in your high school talent show only to finish and have your teacher say, “And now, ladies and gentlemen, the New York Philharmonic!”
Carter wrote several songs on Now or Never, along with some well-regarded pop music writers, including a guy who wrote songs for High School Musical and Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” (which I WORE OUT in my Sony Discman while riding up and down the street on my bike). Other songs were written by a different guy who would later write for Nicki Minaj and One Direction. So this wasn’t an amateur effort, it was just the right music for the wrong time.
Strangely, pop music producing legend Max Martin, responsible for Britney’s “Baby, One More Time” and BSB’s “I Want It That Way” produced three tracks on this album. Of the three songs — “I Got You,” “Blow Your Mind” and “I Just Wanna Take You Home” — none were singles and none had the gripping intangible Max-Martin-ness of Martin’s other hits.
Justified, on the other hand, was a departure from the saccharine sweet pop melodies of *N Sync and showed Justin the Man, rather than the boy with the ramen noodle hair cut. Largely written and produced by The Neptunes (the hit-maker duo of Pharell Williams and Chad Hugo), Justified was HORNY but it was also SO GOOD. Justified was your first glass of fine wine, where Now or Never was the last slurp of your older cousin’s daiquiri at a family wedding. Am I drunk? you ask, naïvely. Is this what being a grown up is?
I didn’t want to purchase Justified at first. It felt like a betrayal of my Backstreet Boys loyalty, but those first few bars of “Like I Love You” seduced me over the radio. He draws you in with his effortlessly sexy whisper, saying, “You gettin’ scared now, right? Don’t fear me baby, it’s just Justin.” And once the chills have subsided from your body, he asks, “It feel good right?” YES, JUSTIN, IT FEELS VERY GOOD.
The rest of the record is just as seductive. But I’m not here to tell you about how good Justified is, just like I’m not here to tell you that the sky is blue or that nachos are the best food. These are just known facts.
I’m here to talk about Now or Never. What follows is a track by track analysis of the album. It’s almost difficult for me to criticize something so pure. This entire record was written, recorded, released and promoted with no hint of irony. 2002 was a simpler time and this record sounds just like it.
Track 1. Help Me — For eighteen years I have listened to this song intermittently and only JUST NOW have I realized this is perhaps (probably?) a Christian rock song. Or a song about his mom. It has a soft acoustic guitar backing Nick’s pleading vocals as he asks for help aligning his moral compass. This song also sets the precedent that Nick will “rap” or break it down mid-song at least once every other song. The mystifying thing about it is there is nothing wrong with this song. Like I said, it’s fine. It’s a competent song. It’s the musical equivalent of a ham and cheese sandwich. It will satiate your hunger but it’s not going to make you want some more.
Track 2. My Confession — Spoiler alert: He does not confess anything at any point in this song. The lyrics read a bit more like a complaint list: “I confess, every time I come around/Something’s always got you down.” Juxtapose this with other great confessional songs like Usher’s “Confessions.” In the first one, Usher reveals he has “a chick on the side with a crib and a ride.” Part II reveals that very same side chick “says she’s three months pregnant and she’s keeping it.” Florida Georgia Line has a “Confession” in which, I believe, he drinks a beer then sets a field on fire. THOSE ARE CONFESSIONS! Telling someone that “something’s always got you down” is a really insensitive way to hint that maybe they need to try therapy.
Track 3. I Stand For You — This song suffers from what other songs on the album suffer from: a dissonance between the verses and the chorus. The song starts off with a laundry list of rebellions:
I’m gonna run forever, say whatever
Take a chance in, what I believe in
I’m gonna have a tattoo, I’m gonna have an attitude
So tell my girlfriend that I’m leaving
He’s a tough boy! He wants to get a tattoo. He wants to take a chance. He wants to have a third party deliver some unfortunate news to his girlfriend. But the chorus is a nonsense chant of motivational posters on your 7th grade science teacher’s wall: “It’s up to you!” “Nothing’s going to stop us now!” “I stand for you!”
The fellas who co-wrote this song with Nick also wrote his then-girlfriend Willa Ford’s one-hit-wonder single “I Wanna Be Bad.” I would caution any musicians from pre-loading a song title with a possible insult. Calling a debut song “I Wanna Be Bad” is setting yourself up for a “Shit Sandwich”-style review of “If that’s what she wanted, that’s what she got!” Similarly, Now or Never could prompt a reviewer choose “Never” rather than this record.
Track 4. Do I Have To Cry For You? — Skip this one. I’m sorry, but it’s basically just a re-do of “I Need You Tonight” off Millennium (also a skipper!) If I recall correctly, that song was also debuted even before Millennum on a foreign-release Backstreet Boys live album and it was boring then, too. Stop trying to make Nick Carter ballads happen. He’s much better with a funky up tempo beat. Speaking of which….
Track 5. Girls In the USA (feat. Mr. Vegas) — What is this song? Who is Mr. Vegas?* I DON’T CARE! This song fucking ROCKS! Yes, the lyrics are kind of weird. Yes, they play off some unfortunate state-specific stereotypes. But COME AT ME IF YOU DON’T THINK THIS BEAT ROCKS!
*Because I have access to the internet, I can tell you that Mr. Vegas is a Jamaican dancehall musician, still releasing some bangers to this very day, and is quite a prolific Tweeter.
His Texas-specific reference is:
“My Texas honeys
Always on the road
Gimme lots of love at the Alamo.”
This first part is actually pretty accurate. Pre-COVID I was driving a fair bit and we have dismal public transit systems. As to the second part, I have never personally given someone love at the Alamo. It could possibly be a felony since it’s a historical site, but the thrill may make it worth it.
Other states are not so lucky. In a couplet concluding the second verse he sings,
“To my Carolina girls lemme rock you all
To my Jersey girls chillin at the mall”
He manages to mash both of the Carolinas together and imply that women in New Jersey can be found at a common shopping mall rather than one of the state’s many fabulous diners. I guess either would be a good bet since the state is known for having both the most shopping malls and the most diners in the world (according to the first page that came up when I googled “impressive things about New Jersey”).
Track 6. I Got You — This is a standard-issue pop song. It sounds like it could have been a Backstreet Boys song. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with releasing a song like this, except that in 2002, it was too late. Also, hearing Nick sing a song like this alone makes it sound like 1/5 of a song. Whereas Justified was a complete departure from what Justin was doing with *N Sync, this sounds like a Backstreet Boys song with four voices edited out.
Track 7. Is It Saturday Yet? — It’s no secret that this is my absolute favorite song on the record. First of all, the song has a rocking intro with a sweet guitar riff and a beat drop right on cue about 5 seconds in. But lyrically, it’s a monologue of a beleaguered teen and the society from which he drug himself.
We open with our young protagonist declaring his personhood: “I’m a product of the nation.” The nation did this to him. It put his “Nintendo on the floor.” It put him on a “permanent vacation.” It moved him in with his mother and thrust her fist against his door at this early hour. On its surface this may seem like a B-side pop song, but when you look beneath the surface, it’s so much more.
In the chorus, he asks, “Is it Saturday yet?” Why? Oh, he’ll tell you: “‘Cause I want to get up.” Other days are filled with toil, trouble and probably his mom telling him to stop spending so much time in the bathroom. But Saturdays? Those are the days when he gets up, when he is his best self. But the nation has confused him so much that he can’t be sure what day it is, finishing the chorus with “Maybe it’s a Saturday.”
Verse 2 provides more insight into this character’s lineage. First, he was “raised by the television.”
“Jerry Springer was my dad
And it wouldn’t matter if Martha Stewart was my mother
And Aaron Carter was my brother, ’cause I’d still be bad”
We found out that his dad is Jerry Springer. Possibly the trash-TV host bedded down craft expert and convicted felon Stewart, but we can’t be sure. He throws a reference to his real-life little brother Aaron Carter who, at the time, was pretty popular (where are my “That’s How I Beat Shaq” fans?) But again, the nation did this. “They won’t stop screaming,” making it such that the protagonist cannot even properly process his thoughts. The rap break (YES THERE IS A RAP BREAK) reveals what is really happening:
Information overload, too much in my mind that I can’t control
In the back of my head are the eyes that I see
That it’s got to be a Saturday
He screams several more times. The lyrics spell it, “Aaaagh!” which seems much more rooted in pain than a simple, “Ooooh!” even with several H’s and O’s.
He ends the song with even more confusion, saying, as the music fades, “I was raised by the television/Jerry Springer is my brother and mother’s cousin was the uncle of my sisters…” but he is cut off before he can reveal the true extent of horror and incest that plagued this fictional family.
Track 8. Blow Your Mind — TL;DR version: underdressed celebrity approaches a random dancing girl in a bar, seduces her, then finds himself shocked when she steals his identity and buys herself a car with his money. Normally I would take umbrage with someone calling a woman “crazy” repeatedly, but it really seems like she seduced him then embezzled his funds.
Track 9. Miss America — This song starts with Nick moaning and breathing into the microphone. It sounds less like the sexy start to a song and more like someone left a microphone in his bathroom. To reiterate, slow jams are not his forte. Nick shines in upbeat, poppy dance songs. This is a strange-tempo attempt at seduction. The lyrics also read like they were written in a different language then put through Google translate:
I see your beauty shine in every girl
Coast to coast
You’re the queen of my world
You’re the reason for this state I’m in
New York to LA
Skin to skin
He keeps bringing it back to the patriotic sexuality:
Take me where you are
In the land of the free
Make a prisoner of me
Close my eyes and you’re all that I see
This makes sense in the post-9/11 wave of hyper pro-Americanism. Along those lines, the groaning he does in this song should probably be reported to the authorities.
Track 10. I Just Wanna Take You Home -Nick Carter doing what he does best, talking to a “girl” in a song, backed by a fun and bouncy beat. The lyrics do promote skipping the dating part and just heading straight to the sack, so in that case, the song is very progressive!
Track 11. Heart Without A Home (I’ll Be Yours) — Ok so I know earlier I said Nick should skip ballads, but this one is different. This song is like an auditory Lifetime movie. It is as if someone is singing a romance novel to you in 4 minutes and 45 seconds.
I got a feeling if I gave you some
You’d probably want some more
I believe that “some” that he’s offering is cumbersome, hyper-sweaty lovemaking and, after this song, yeah probably I would want some more. Especially after our history*.
*Nick Carter was my first kiss. Not on the mouth! But he was the first boy who my mouth touched. I was probably 12, at the height of my Backstreet Boys fandom. My mom had befriended some grown-up Backstreet Boys fans, one of whom was friends with the band’s bodyguard. We were able to meet them on various occasions, including once at the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. Nick came over to say hello, greeted me with a hug, and we gave each other kisses on the cheek. That counts! My first kiss was a Backstreet Boy!
Track 12. Who Needs the World — For no real reason, he ends the record with this mediocre acoustic jam. It is produced by The Matrix, a producing duo who has worked with a ton of famous and talented musicians. But it ends this record like a dying breath of an era of pop music that had long been over.
To be fair, during an interview around the album’s release, Nick declared the intent of the record: “I just wanted it to be a feel-good album.” In my 33 year-old-cynicism, it’s real easy to mock this album. But when it was released in the fall of 2002, I had just turned sixteen. I spent Saturday mornings driving up and down the back-country roads of my hometown of Mesquite, Texas, windows down, volume up. Bright blue skies and long stretches of blacktop, and pumping through the speakers was “Is it Saturday Yet?”
Yes, it was Saturday. I was sixteen. I had a car, I had a soundtrack, and I could do anything.