opinion byJEAN-LUC MARSH
It would be easy to lump Ariana Grande in with the Mileys and Selenas of the pop music machine. On the topical level, the similarities are obvious: all three are starlets birthed on popular children’s networks seeking an adult career in the music industry. A longer look affords a chance to see the differences. Whereas the other two faced a pressure to “grow up,” (read: pile on the sex appeal), in order to shed the image of their childhood careers, Grande never really underwent the drastic transformation that haunts many an aging Disney star, though granted, she has been skewing towards the image of schoolgirl fantasy as of late. Her music career always seemed to exist outside the sphere of her Nickelodeon origins, and as such her transition was relatively smooth. Now, having already broken into mainstream radio, Grande is seeking staying power with her sophomore album, My Everything.
What lends My Everything immediate credibility is Grande’s towering vocal prowess. Her pipes are the real deal, and her whistle register, the ethereal collection of notes that go beyond the falsetto, seems to pierce into ranges that no mere mortal could ever hope to reach. The world has taken notice, and consequently christened Grande the heir to Mariah Carey’s throne. However, aside from the penchant for featherweight melisma the two share, the differences are greater than the similarities. It was a comparison that held some water in 2013 with the release of Yours Truly, but because My Everything moves away from the R&B leanings of her debut (as well as Carey’s disappointing Me. I am Mariah… The Elusive Chanteuse) towards unadulterated pop, it is now mostly a moot point.
Sometimes, it is precisely this pursuit of pop grandeur that drags My Everything down.Stealing another page from the Mariah playbook, Grande’s record is chock-full of featured artists. In what becomes a tired trope by album’s end, four guest rappers (and king of seedy The Weeknd) contribute little to the work overall besides distracting from the main event. These are often the moments in which My Everything falls flattest. The most blatant of these blunders is when A$AP Ferg raps about putting his candle on Grande’s cake on the already tawdry penultimate track that is “Hands On Me.” The entire affair is oversexed, and Grande, who tries to play it coy by instructing the audience to “keep your eyes on my you-know-what,” only adds insult to injury. Childish Gambino’s verse on “Break Your Heart Right Back” is similarly unwelcome (the sample of Diana Ross' seminal "I'm Coming Out" is vastly more compelling). Abel Tsefaye’s sheer presence on a love song also ranks highly in cringe factor. Yet, what holds My Everything back more than anything else is the uninspired songwriting throughout. The attempt to bottle up the essence of summer 2K14 in an album via an endless string of smashes and guest spots leaves little room for wit or lyricism.
That is not to say that My Everything does not shine when held up at the right angles. The producers-cum-DJs on the record (Zedd and Cashmere Cat) both imbue their respective tracks (“Break Free” and “Be My Baby”) with additional textures and flourishes that complement Grande rather than stealing the spotlight for a single precious second. “Problem” and “Break Free” still have a chokehold on the song of the summer. “Intro” is a remarkably mature effort at a pre-album palate cleanser by such a young artist. The otherworldly notes that Grande hits on "One Last Time" and “Why Try” remain standouts several listens through. The fact that she included Diana Ross on her album at all shows taste and wins major brownie points. Call it real-life chemistry, but the track with Big Sean is among the better moments in terms of guest spots. Finally, the album’s eponymous closer delivers a wallop in slow-burning balladry second to none.
Despite its shortcomings, My Everything succeeds in its primary objective. This is a pop record, clear and simple. She may have some kinks to work out, but for now Grande can run with the big girls. B