A dangerous pop talent searches for the right sound.
Pop costume-changer Ariana Grande has had seven Top 10 hits and we’re still no closer to figuring out who she wants to be. Is Grande still the retro-minded melodicist of “Bang Bang”? Is she still the house diva pulsing along with Zedd on “Break Free”? Still the hip-hop party rocker sharing space with Iggy Azalea on “Problem”? Still the narcotized night-crawler taking a midnight ride with the Weekend on “Love Me Harder”?
On third album Dangerous Woman, the answer to all of the above is “yes.” Most of the deluxe version’s 15 tracks fit fairly neatly into one of those categories, highlighting a singles artist who’s capable of practically anything (the monster title track mixes Dap-Kings with “Trap Queen”). But as an album artist, she’s prone to a schizophrenic sound and unfortunate sequencing: How do you follow a song called “Everyday” with one called “Sometimes”?
Grande is at her most irresistible when she’s in Big Chill mode, mixing timeless melodies – mostly in 6/8 – with modern production. “Moonlight” takes Spector-ian string plucks to makeout point; “I Don’t Care” is awesome Chicago soul with a vocal solo and a vamping band; and “Leave Me Lonely borrows a naturally vintage guest appearance from Macy Gray that sounds like Nineties R&B gone Bond soundtrack. If you combined these songs with similarly retro material from her debut record (“Honeymoon Avenue,” “Tattooed Heart”) you could probably make a good case for Grande as a rock-friendly voice that could be critically adored like Adele or Amy Winehouse.
But Grande came up as a Nickelodeon star, so her sights are probably much, much wider than “critical darling.” That means we get a flat, monochromatic, tropical house swagger-jack (“Be Alright”), an uptown-funky piece of nonsense (“Greedy”), and something where Future sings a chorus that is one word (“Everyday”). Her talents are wasted on meaningful-sounding but ultimately trite lyrics like “How do I feel you on me/When you’re not on my skin” and “We’re collecting moments/Tattoos on my mind.” However, her phrasing remains unique and powerful and pyrotechnic, going at unexpected angles – check out how the word “boy” in “Side to Side” explodes in six notes. Grande may not have settled on a sound, but she’s still an outsized, dangerous talent.