Most reasonable people would call Ariana Grande a huge success, but her unreasonable talent makes success relative. She jumped from Nickelodeon to radio in 2011 with a voice like Mariah, a children’s TV resume like Britney, and a sense of style that recalled Lolita — nothing to hurt sales there. Since then pop guru Max Martin has penned most of her hits; Martin had already taken Katy Perry to the top of the pops, and Perry couldn’t sing her way out of a Victoria’s Secret bag. As Ariana Grande has proven over her three records and nineteen singles, one thing she can definitely do is sing. She’s had two number one albums and is poised for a hat trick. She’s a superstar. And yet, all of the other superstars I just mentioned have bested her on the Billboard Hot 100. Mariah Carey had eighteen number one hits. Katy Perry has had nine, and Britney Spears has had four. Shouldn’t Ariana Grande have at least one?
On her debut album, 2013’s Yours Truly, she explicitly invited the Mariah comparisons by soaring into her whistle register over the kind of ’90s R&B beats that Ms. Carey used to devour whole. Less than a year later she was back with My Everything and a more contemporary sound, complements in large part of Martin. She hit #2 with Iggy Azalea on “Problem”, #3 with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj on “Bang Bang”, #4 with Zedd on “Break Free”, and #7 with The Weeknd on “Love Me Harder”. That’s a lot of hits, but they came alongside a lot of big names. The question became: “Can she carry a song on her own? Obviously she has the pipes, but does she have the force of personality?”
We have an answer of sorts with Dangerous Woman, which she pulls off with a minimum of featured help. Grande is technically perfect, and can tease, flirt, love, and lose as well as anyone in pop — but she falls short in lust. On the title track, she coos over a slinky guitar. But when she sings, “Something about you makes me want to do things that I shouldn’t,” her tone suggests she means jaywalking, or perhaps sorting recyclables into the trash. The song itself is a lot of fun, but it’s not the kind of performance that’s going to lead to an increase in worldwide pregnancies. There’s something missing, something like Beyonce’s sensual ache or Rihanna’s raw hunger. Do those seem like unfair comparisons? Well, it shouldn’t as those are her projected peers.
When it comes to sex, she’s at her best when she takes a sly approach, like on “Side To Side”, where she’s been fucking so much that she can’t walk straight. Other artists might have spent the whole song panting, but when Ariana sings, “Boy you got me walking side to side,” it’s done with an eye-roll and a smile. “Let Me Love You” finds her feeling jealous and deliciously vindictive. The hook relies on the kind of electronic vocal manipulations we associate with a weaker voice, say Selena Gomez, but the verses are Grande at her mewling best.
“Moonlight” opens Dangerous Woman, and it’s perfectly suited to her strengths. Twinkling keys and plucked violins create a woozy backdrop for her swooning vocals. The way she flips from falsetto to her whistle register for the word moonlight is breathtaking. Most of the radio play will go to the Martin cuts (“Dangerous Woman”, “Into You”, and “Side To Side”, all fine songs and all likely hits for any artist), but Grande has a special talent for whimsy, and its in the whimsical moments that Dangerous Woman shines.
This might have something to do with her personality and her, um, unconventional beliefs. This is the woman who tweets about seeing ghosts and UFOs, the pop star who once gave a classic interview to Complex about struggling with demons — and not emotional demons, but literal demons from hell. In other words, Ariana Grande the person is much more offbeat and interesting than Ariana Grande the pop star. The pop star is putting out fine records, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that her ludicrous potential remains unfulfilled.
Essential Tracks: “Moonlight”, “Into You”, and “Side To Side”