If MTV and Beats By Dre are to be believed, Nickelodeon star turned not-so-elusive chanteuse Ariana Grande IS the second pop coming.
The past few months have seen a massive marketing push for the pint-sized singer, going as far as to give her a TRL special (yes, that TRL) and the coveted opening slot at last weekend’s VMAs, a serious step-up from her performance at the pre-show last year.
All of this was leading up to her sophomore effort My Everything, released this week. It’s clear that the album is her official claim to the pop throne, and after the massive success of summer single “Problem” and the growth of current track “Break Free”, there is plenty of hype propelling her to a debut atop if the charts next week. But considering some of the issues surrounding her image and her Victorious upbringing, it’s fair to ask whether said claim is valid (remember when we declared Miley pop’s next big thing and she fizzled fairly quickly after riding that wrecking ball?)
My Everything, and Ariana Grande as a whole, is really about that voice. In a landscape drenched with AutoTune and barely passable live vocals, Ariana is the rare singer who could be held up besides the vocal greats, not necessarily as an equal but for her potential. It really all falls onto the material, and whether it successfully brings out her considerable ability while also being catchy enough for pop radio.
For the most part, the album does a good job doing that. The two singles sound even better in context of the album, although “Problem” would’ve been better if Ariana sang the chorus. “Break Free” succeeds solely because of Ariana’s vocals; she deserved stronger production from co-credited Zedd. The rest of the album offers some genuine surprises that point to much needed growth and range. One of the album’s highlight tracks is “One Last Time”, a midtempo fashioned after Drake’s “Take Care” that has Ariana begging for one more night with an ex. It’s a sparse, warm track that finds Ariana at her most convincingly sultry. She plays the jilted, and a bit rude, lover just as well on the ballsy “Break Your Heart Right Back”. Here, her breathy vocals get to chew out an ex who was cheating on her with another man, over a surprising and very smart “I’m Coming Out” sample.
“Smart” is a word that comes to mind often with this album, especially regarding Ariana’s collaborations. Besides the ubiquitous Iggy Azalea, she teams up with Childish Gambino on the aforementioned “Break”, The Weeknd on fellow standout “Love Me Harder”, and Big Sean on the pretty good “Best Mistake”. The album’s most pleasant surprise comes from One Direction member Harry Styles, who penned the album’s big ballad “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart”. It sounds like it could’ve been treacly, but Harry wrote a very earnest song and Ariana interprets it beautifully.
When Ariana bucks the expectations of her image, she truly shines. When she doesn’t, things get shaky. “Hands On Me” is a fine little bop, but it sounds like a little girl trying really hard to be sexy, which makes less sense when she actually is on better songs. The title track sounds like a throwaway from Yours Truly and “Be My Baby” and “Why Try” are simply not as interesting as the other songs.
My Everything is surprisingly strong album. It’s really easy to write off Ariana Grande as another packaged teen-tertainer who wants to take a stab at being a pop star, but she has both the pipes and the musical instincts to really stand out as a serious pop contender. The only thing holding her back is the vestiges of her Nickelodeon days, even apparent on the album’s cover. Hopefully, her next album will have her casting that super-cute youthful thing aside, because with a voice like hers, she really needs to claim the throne that’s being set up for her.