Review: Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman

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Pop stars need to stop trying to convince me they’re dangerous and just fucking be dangerous already. This is officially tiresome. All these Disney-to-jailbait transitions have been going on since Britney strutted down that school hallway in pigtails for the “…Baby One More Time” video, but let’s talk about that song for a second from a musical standpoint: the piano riff, the bass line, the crushing, slow-burning tension that builds right through the refrain until the riff returns and plants you back where you began, and Britney’s sexed-up robot voice — it’s a brilliant piece of music, a masterful example of how to sustain a pop hook with conservative instrumentation. For better or worse, Britney had an Elvis/Beatles-like effect on the generation that grew up with her, sending the messaging that you can be a young woman, a mainstream pop star, making music for teenagers and pre-teens, and actually matter; actually have people writing articles and talking about your significance to society. Britney is, to some extent, what inspired the current wave of female pop stars to go into music, and what determined the way they did it. Even Madonna didn’t start a movement the way Britney did, perhaps because the girls who grew up with Madonna were also growing up with Chrissie Hynde, Kate Bush, and Annie Lennox.

That song came out almost 20 years ago, and yet dance-pop stars shoving their naughtiness in our faces is now more inescapable than ever. I’d attribute this at least partly to the rise of Lady Gaga and her purposely grotesque exaggeration of modern recording technology, reducing sex to pure, cold will. Once Gaga showed up, suddenly Miley Cyrus was dancing around in a cage with black wings on her back, and Christina Aguilera was strapped to a chair in leather bondage, and on and on it’s gone, Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez and (let’s not leave the boys out) Joe Jonas. It says something that even the female pop singers who were openly more risqué with their content are now making a more concerted effort to be “dark” and “mature.” (Though in their case, I’d attribute that to Kanye West; Rihanna and Beyoncé want their own Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as much as Carly Rae Jepsen and Ariana Grande want their own 1989.)

Ariana Grande is not dangerous. She’s not dangerous to such a degree that I’m still wondering whether she was even trying for danger here, or whether she was trying really hard and failed. I’m leaning toward the latter option at the moment, because to be frank, I’m not sure it’s even possible to make this style of singing sound dangerous. Everyone acknowledges Ariana as the Disney star who can Actually Sing, and though to a lot of people “singing” just means projecting loudly and hitting the notes (the more melisma the better), she certainly has tons more grace than Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez. (As an aside, can we bask for a moment in the fact that we’re still not seeing think-pieces on Selena Gomez yet? I mean, I know it’s coming, but let’s just enjoy the open space while it’s still here.) Good singing’s also about how you inflect the notes; how you shade them, how you offset them against whatever arrangement you’re working with. Ariana’s way of singing is one that, while still carrying a tune (usually), lifts to the high notes very suddenly and stretches them out to fade into a coo. Sometimes it can be really pretty, especially when she harmonizes with herself. And yet she doesn’t seem like a singer who’ll ever have the potential to truly bust out and work a hook as viscerally as, say, “Cool for the Summer”, let alone “…Baby One More Time”. That’s why 1989 was such a great album: for all the chatter about Taylor’s “reinvention” of her sound, there was no pandering there; those of us who’d been following her career beforehand knew that her worldview remained very much her own. It was a change of sound, not necessarily of vision.

Aaaanywho, this is all a longwinded way of reporting that Dangerous Woman shouldn’t be taken particularly seriously as any kind of “maturation,” but that it still has some pretty good songs on it. Not counting the bonus tracks, there are only two outright throwaways: “Let Me Love You”, which is tuneless and has a really lazy hook and features Lil Wayne saying “grinding on this Grande” (which seems merely gross at first and then reveals itself as gross and totally inevitable once you get over the initial shock and remember who said it), and “Sometimes”, which has a pleasant la-la-la’d hook among a hideous Jack Johnson-style acoustic douche arrangement. (Quick note on the four bonus tracks: they mostly try to dump some vague EDM vibes on you. “Bad Decisions” is a good dance song with a solid chorus (especially the way she sings the title words) and “Touch It” is another big-throbbing boomer, but once again these songs are underdeveloped beyond their choruses, and the other two tracks aren’t worth mentioning.)

Mind you, it’s not Grande’s range that’s impressive, because aside from her multi-octave vocal dexterity she doesn’t have much range, at least not as evinced here. It’s the dexterity of the producers, specifically mad genius Max Martin and to a lesser extent mid-‘00s r&b-apprenticed TB Hits. The first song, “Moonlight”, immediately made me suspect the whole “dangerous” schtick here was a big intentional joke after all, so soft and innocent and downright nostalgic: it really does evoke the mood of late-‘50s doo-wop merging into doe-eye girl-group pop. (Very “Earth Angel”. ‘50s retro is in with the kids now, apparently; she even evokes James Dean, albeit Taylor did it first and more convincingly.) The notion of Ariana singing about staring at a guy while they’re supposed to be watching a movie sounds gag-worthy, but the arrangement is so gorgeously crafted that it comes across as genuinely sweet: gently-lapping vocal harmonies like light speckling on water, plucked violin turning into a thin bowed harmony line in the middle. This slow-shimmering ballad feel is echoed in the closing comedown “I Don’t Care”, too (beautiful slippery wah-wah), which bookends the album nicely.

But after the first song comes a bunch of different styles, which unfortunately are all somewhat weighed down by Ariana’s lack of interesting inflection. (She has a way of slurring words, so much so that I had to re-play the last words of “Moonlight” many times to figure out what she says—and that’s the upfront, intimate conclusion you’re supposed to hear.) Sometimes it’s the features that save the songs: Macy Gray’s part on the brooding, anxious “Leave Me Lonely” is strong, what with that torn velvet molasses feeling of her voice, but the song’s boring whenever she’s not on the mike. Ditto “Everyday”, a pretty generic song but with Future’s verse commanding everything in that woozy way of his while Ariana harmonizes around him. On the opposite end of things, you get Nicki Minaj’s lackluster bit in “Side to Side”—she was better on their dopey “Bang Bang” single last year—but the music’s actually fine, with a solid ska groove. Great bass!

The varying level of success with these styles really pivots back and forth from song to song. Ariana tries out the chopped house sound on “Be Alright”, and the deep murmured male voices skipping channel to channel are quite pleasant, but most of what surrounds them—some sweet riffing from Ariana excepted—doesn’t deliver much beyond it. (The verse parts in most of these songs are pretty half-assed.) And yet soon afterward she does a swanky, glitzy song called “Greedy” that’s just delightful, a sort of ‘80s big-band pastiche with an incredibly catchy chorus (clearly influenced by Bruno Mars’ “Treasure”); the girly-girl upturn on her voice works well, like an improved version of those awful retro-soul pastiches Madonna was doing in the early ‘90s.

This leaves the two singles, which convey what’s right and wrong with this material. The title track, which wasn’t quite the smash they probably hoped for, is full of interesting elements: scratchy retro-soul guitar; Max Martin’s mastery of aural space with the big synth swells and deep horns into the chorus; stabbed piano in anxious Alessia Cara style. But the pre-choruses don’t convey any of the vast desperation Ariana’s going for, and the chorus ain’t special either. And what’s with the way the song just empties out for that guitar solo? The idea’s great, but God does it sound feeble. Strange pacing problems there. Second single “Into You”, another Martin production, has a simple dark-night pulse that morphs its tone nicely: ever so slightly, it moves from a simple thin muffled pulse to a sharper, fiercer throb, until it goes all-out strobe-y. But the song as a whole feels stilted; Ariana’s smoother voice just plain doesn’t gel with that rhythm.

And y’know, what’s weird is that, when you think about it, that second single should work very well for Ariana. The aforementioned chasteness to her voice would seem, in theory, to make the sentiments of rising temperature waiting for someone to make a move before she makes her own (whether that means moving on or actually making the move herself). And yet it comes across as one of the most unintentionally pathetic sex-me-up songs in recent memory. “A little less conversation, a little more touch my body”—that’s just kinda…well, stupid.

So yeah, lotta mixed tones on this thing. A maturation it ain’t. Dangerous it definitely ain’t. In one of the bonus tracks, Ariana asks: “Ain’t you ever see a princess be a bad bitch?” TOO OFTEN, YES! Don’t tell me about it, just fuckin’ be it! B