Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Ariana Grande's "My Everything" is a beacon of light in the Top 40 darkness

I still remember the first time I listened to Ariana Grande's music.  My brother and I were driving to a baseball game and he told me, "You have to listen to Ariana Grande's new single" and proceeded to put on "The Way."  Beforehand, I only knew her as the burgundy-haired girl from that Nickelodeon show Victorious, and didn't even know she made music.  There was a large barrier to entry going into the song: I wasn't a fan of any other Disney or Nickelodeon star's music, so I had no reason to be optimistic about Grande.  Nor was I into Mac Miller -- this was before he began to gain goodwill by putting out respectable music -- who had a guest verse.  But you know what?  I was blown away by "The Way," which sounded simultaneously like a throwback and something new and refreshing.

The entirety of her debut album, Yours Truly, instilled the same kind of feeling in me.  It's an endlessly listenable record (my sixth favorite album of 2013), full of catchy tunes that were able to show off Grande's powerful pipes.  She effortlessly rode the line between pop and R&B of the mid-to-late 90s variety better than anybody since Jojo.

If that album's charming success seemed accidental, then make no mistake about My Everything, which is a clear attempt by Grande to rocket herself into pop's highest echelon.  Unfortunately, this leads to one of the least successful songs on the record in "Break Free."  It's not a bad song -- in fact, it's pretty catchy on every other listen.  The problem is that it's just generic dance pop fluff, lacking the personality that makes her best songs stand out.  There's just a semi-grating chorus, the obligatory EDM drop near the end, and some uninspired lyrics (just trying parsing the phrase "I only wanna die alive").  It sounds like a song you'd hear on the radio right between two songs that sound exactly like it.  It sounds like something that would soundtrack a scene in Jersey Shore if that show still existed.  It sounds like two rival nightclubs getting into a fight.  You get the point.

She goes way over to the other side of the genre dial with "Hands On Me," a sub-Beyonce strutter with a limp guest turn from A$AP Ferg.  There's something commendable about her trying new things, but stretching to the ends of the pop and hip hop spectrum just causes the songs to snap and fall apart.

When she does stay in the pocket that she carved out on her first album, it once again produces glorious results.  You can see this in the album's roaring middle stretch, which features midtempo bangers like "Be My Baby."  "Best Mistake" puts Grande's pristine vocals at the forefront, resting atop a simple but beautiful piano line that carries the song.  "Break Your Heart Right Back," perhaps the greatest summation of her 90s influences, repurposes Notorious B.I.G. by way of Diana Ross, stretching it out and turning the beat into a skeletal, bass-heavy slinker.  The latter two feature rap verses -- from Big Sean and Childish Gambino, respectively -- that are mostly forgettable, but Grande's sense of melody is strong enough to make up for it during her parts.

One of the most unique things about Yours Truly was just how old-fashioned it was, not just musically but also in terms of lyrical content.  It was an album of hand-holding, stomach butterflies, and kissing underneath the moonlight.  Listeners might be surprised by just how much more raunchy My Everything is, coming only a year after Grande's debut.  (Yours Truly might've been released in 2013, but many of the songs were written way before then.)  "Skirt off, keep my high heels on / I might be a little thing but I like that long" is enough to make an old man's monocle pop out.  But even ambiguous phrases that could be bent to the side of innocence on her last album take on a more sensual vibe on My Everything.

Though her carnal musings come off like a kid trying on their parents' clothes, many of her lyrics have surprising, nuanced things to say about relationships.  On My Everything, they're a real struggle.  It's full of songs where relationships are a fight to remain faithful, to keep the fire alive.  But to Grande, who sings, "I'm loving the pain, I never wanna live without it" on "Why Try," the battle is what makes everything worthwhile.  Later she sings, "We've been living like angels, living like devils."  This an album about how people in relationships can be many opposing things all at once.

Perhaps reflective of Grande's hippie-dippy personality, this is a very even-handed album.  It's rare for pop stars to admit culpability as much as she does here, where more than one song is about her asking for forgiveness in the wake of mistakes she's made.  But even the breakup songs are about the ways in which both parties are flawed.  "Problem" might be lighting up the charts because of its blaring, hair-whipping horns, but take a look at the lyrics and you'll realize it's actually an interesting reflection on being unable to shake the desire to be with a guy she knows is wrong for her.  There are complex conflicts throughout My Everything, between trust and betrayal, giving and asking for second chances, one's wants and what's actually right for them.

Ariana Grande is only 21 years old, and My Everything feels like the work of somebody who is still figuring things out.  The album is a tug of war between the kind of music that will make her more popular and the kind that made her so good in the first place.  But it manages to be a success because her songwriting and vocal talents push her through the record's wobbly-footed moments.  This seems like something that history will remember as a transitional album, marking the time before she really comes into her own as a musician.  If an album as frequently great as this one is an example of Grande not quite reaching her potential, then the world might not be ready for when she finally peaks.

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