Deep inside himself, quick-tongued singer-songwriter Jason Mraz harbors a desire to be a kiddiepop hip-hop hero. In “Wordplay,” the likably obnoxious lead single from his second studio album, the 28-year-old Virginia native refers to past hits à la Kanye West and views his artistry as a business, just like actual businessman Jay-Z: “Before the record label puts me on the shelf up in the freezer,” he worries, “gotta find another way to live the life of leisure.” What’s more, “Geek in the Pink”—co-written by Scott Storch, with Dr. Dre sideman Mike Elizondo on bass and the Roots’ ?uestlove on drums—laces Maroon 5 Caucasoid-soul guitar with a high-pitched G-funk whine and perfunctory turntable scratches (which, OK, Mraz probably lifted from Sugar Ray).
This kind of dabbling is to be expected from Mraz, who beat back boredom in the San Diego coffeehouse scene until “The Remedy,” a delightful confection he penned with the Matrix, turned him into a pop star two years ago. But Mr. A–Z is best when Mraz flashes back to a different phase of his education: the year he spent in New York at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. In “Did You Get My Message?” he and raspy-voiced Rachael Yamagata trade urbane witticisms like Lauren Bacall and Len Cariou; when the chorus line pipes up halfway through, you can practically see him tying on his tap shoes.
Jay-Twee’s San Diego–based lady Tristan Prettyman could use a little of her man’s Mrazzle-dazzle. On Twentythree, her decaffeinated debut, she’s firmly marooned in SoCal coffeehouse mode: Low-cal strummers like “Love Love Love” and “Please” could bore a Jack Johnson fan not already bored by Edie Brickell. Prettyman only staves off snoozing with “Shy That Way,” a sly little duet with Mraz in which the cute couple unpack the self-destructive impulse that keeps cast members of Laguna Beach from maintaining productive relationships. All she needs in this life of sin is her and her boyfriend.