A Grande hit
Matthew Munhall | Tuesday, August 26, 2014
“Maybe one day I’ll get away with something naughty,” Ariana Grande quipped in a recent New York Times profile. Like many teen idols before her, the 21-year-old former Nickelodeon star is in the midst of navigating the transition from child star to bonafide pop diva.
Grande’s debut album “Yours Truly” was one of 2013’s unexpectedly great blockbuster pop masterpieces. That album was sonically indebted to the 90s R&B of Mariah Carey, but lyrically tame enough for her legions of tween fans. References to sexuality from Grande herself were oblique; mostly, she sang wide-eyed but self-aware sentiments like, “I wanna say we’re going steady / Like it’s 1955.” Alongside her powerful voice, the way Grande knowingly tip-toed around the constraints imposed by her clean-cut image became one of the album’s strengths.
Her sophomore effort “My Everything” arrives almost a year to the day later, just as Grande is achieving mainstream recognition. It is carefully calculated to capitalize on that momentum, moving her toward the epicenter of Top 40 without completely ditching the tweens just yet. The record is an assured evolution of the Ariana Grande brand, not an outright obliteration. Think Britney Spears’ “Oops!… I Did It Again:” not that innocent, but not too risqué for the minivan CD player either.
For the most part, Grande wisely surrounds herself with capable collaborators that seek to bolster her dual role as a radio staple and Pitchfork darling. These include proven hitmakers like Swedish pop Svengali Max Martin and German EDM producer Zedd and tastemaker favorites like the rapper A$AP Ferg and sleazy R&B artist The Weeknd. Sometimes the album threatens to veer wildly off the rails, especially during goofy guest verses from truly terrible rappers Iggy Azalea and Big Sean. In lesser hands, these encyclopedic credits would make for a disjointed album. Yet, “My Everything” succeeds by adopting what Tom Ewing called “[t]he ‘Revolver’ blueprint for pop albums — every track good, every track a potential hit.” It’s a strategy that seems to be working for Grande so far; currently, three of the album’s singles sit in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100.
The best songs on “My Everything” revel in this maximalist, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach to hit-making. Months later, the chaotic summer smash “Problem,” with its klezmer-beat horns, fizzy synths and whispered chorus, is still as enjoyable as ever. Another standout, “Hands on Me,” a Darkchild-produced banger featuring A$AP Ferg, is the most out-of-left-field. It recalls lustful 2000s radio hits like Beyoncé’s “Baby Boy” and Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous.” It is also Grande at her most provocative: “Skirt off, keep the high heels on / Might be a little thing but I like that long.” Still, Grande confidently proves she is capable of more mature content and her willingness to throw herself into the material is one of the record’s greatest strengths.
The album’s major misfire is the hackneyed ballad “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.” Penned by One Direction heartthrob Harry Styles, it suffers under the weight of a barely-there chorus and a melodramatic string section. It pales in comparison to the fantastic “Almost Is Never Enough” from her debut. That ballad, too, featured a boybander — The Wanted’s Nathan Sykes — but was surprisingly soulful. Fortunately, the album closer, “My Everything,” fares better, with Grande convincingly emoting the ballad’s vulnerability over sparse piano chords.
“My Everything” aims squarely for the charts but still cements itself as one of the year’s strongest, most fun pop releases. In the process, Grande maybe gets away with something just a little bit naughty.