Monday, August 25, 2014

album review: 'my everything' by ariana grande

It's been an eventful year for Ariana Grande.

And let's be fair here, it wasn't exactly like 2013 was a bad year for her, considering the breakthrough success of 'The Way' and to a lesser extent with 'Baby I', songs that did a fair amount to showcase her talent and did enough for me to review her debut album Yours Truly. Which, for the most part, I quite liked: the songwriting was well-framed and complimented Ariana Grande's image and delivery quite well, and it featured a fair few songs that really stuck with me, including her collaboration with Mika 'Popular Song', which landed on my list of my favourite songs of 2013. Sure, I didn't think the instrumentation and production was all that stellar, but I figured that would be something that would take a little time to iron out.

Now one element I noticed about that debut is that even though Ariana wanted to distance herself from her Nickelodeon sitcom roots, her material was still fairly 'innocent', all things considered. Sex and sexuality were referred to through innuendo, the romance took center stage, and the songs had a much lighter tone - and like someone who has seen so many teen starlets go down this road before, or even Ariana's vocal predecessor Mariah Carey, I knew that pristine image wasn't likely to last, especially as Ariana rocketed up the charts and as of this recording has three songs in the Billboard Hot 100. And with a larger stable of writers and collaborators jumping behind her, you could tell that the marketing push was looking for this album to sell a lot. Yours Truly was the warm-up, this was the real deal, so how's the record?

Well, it's an interesting record, that's for sure, and in many ways, it's a definite improvement over Yours Truly in terms of cleaning up some truly egregious problems in instrumentation and production on that last release. Hell, I'd even argue it's more cohesive in fitting to its lyrical themes. But at the same time, it's a record that goes for a certain tone and vibe and even though Ariana Grande is working her ass off to make it work, I'm not sure it sticks the landing. 

I should explain that issue, but let's start by talking about everything that goes right on this album, especially in the area that needed the biggest improvement: the instrumentation and production. The biggest issue with Yours Truly was that the production tended to sound flat, poorly focused, and doing everything possible to detract from Ariana's presence. Thankfully, the addition of well over a dozen professional songwriters and producers fixed that issue and Ariana is placed front and center against your traditional brand of percussion-heavy pop R&B and there are a couple of moments that grab a lot of distinctive personality: the horns and punchiness of 'Problem' (albeit with a chorus that should have been a lot stronger for its build-up), the rollicking guitars and subtle bass oscillations on the chorus of 'Break Your Heart Right Back', the great thick swell of 'Love Me Harder', and of course the subdued, gentle reverb-supported piano of 'Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart'. Hell, I even liked the in-your-face jazzy vibe of 'Bang Bang' that definitely outstrips its spiritual predecessor in 'Lady Marmalade', and while I'd argue Jessie J steals the spotlight with her rougher delivery, Ariana definitely holds her own. Now not all the instrumental moments work - Zedd's high-energy heaviness is a really poor compliment to Ariana's fluttery voice 'Break Free', 'Hands On Me' has a vibe like a Pussycat Dolls reject with really cheap sounding synths that might be okay for Ariana but are a terrible fit for A$AP Ferg's rap verse which tries to switch up and go harder and really feels out-of-place, and 'You Don't Know Me' goes for much of the same cheap-sounding overproduction that didn't work on Yours Truly. But honestly, most of these production issues are minor, and while I would appreciate a more melodic focus and the reverb and autotune to be turned back a little, the balance feels a lot better.

And it also helps that the songwriting has mostly stayed consistent - which is a little amazing considering there are over forty songwriters contributing to the deluxe edition of this album! This creates something of a quandary with Grande's lyrics, in that they tend to be well-written and framed, but they lack a certain amount of individual flavour beyond certain traditional R&B archetypes. Thematically, this album is very focused on troubled relationships and breakups, and to this album's credit does explore a fairly wide variety of possibilities. You get the more straightforward sex songs in 'Be My Baby', 'Hands On Me', and 'Love Me Harder', the last done shockingly well with The Weeknd dialing back his explicit lyrics to meet Ariana in the middle, but My Everything gets interesting when situations get complicated. The back-and-forth of 'Problem', 'Why Try', and 'Best Mistake' is reasonably well done, with even Big Sean delivering one of his better, albeit completely corny verses in a while on 'Best Mistake' that unfortunately falls apart with the lyric 'Only lying to you when I lie you down, just being honest'. Way to keep looking like a douchebag, Big Sean, at least you realize you're a mistake. 

Although to be fair to him, not all of the guest stars come off particularly well on this record, or at their best. Iggy Azalea probably fares the best, displaying a lot of curt methodical energy that's a solid contrast to 'Problem', and 'Bang Bang' is a solid collaboration playing off the good girl vs. bad girl dichotomy before Nicki Minaj goes up the middle and sways Jessie J over to Ariana's side. But A$AP Ferg's verse is token and Childish Gambino's verse on 'Break Your Heart Right Back' is probably the dumbest thing he's ever put on record, worse even than the wordplay he dropped on Riff Raff's Neon Icon. Which is a bit of a shame, because 'Break Your Heart Right Back' is actually a pretty solid track about how Ariana's boyfriend cheats on her with a guy, and then tries to come back, with Gambino playing the guy trying to step in. It's not exactly a flattering song and it sure as hell isn't sympathetic, but the lighter tone, good framing and confidence helps make it work. And that's one thing I do really like about this album: Ariana's use of more morally ambiguous framing on songs like 'One Last Time' where she's the one who lied, the aching sadness of 'Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart' where she was cheated on and yet hopes she can hold onto a bit of the love even though she knows she shouldn't, or the bonus track 'Only 1' where she can't help but feel disbelief because this guy is so good. It's very telling that Ariana is so good at selling that brand of vulnerability that she can make these songs work.

But here's the thing: that vulnerability works because it's played with more subtlety and it's a better fit for Ariana's breathy, girly vocals. What doesn't quite work is when Ariana tries to push for a more aggressive, straightforward brand of sexuality with heavier backbeats, especially considering the vocal production can come across as a little slapdash and clumsy in supporting her. It does work on 'Love Me Harder' - mostly through contrast with The Weeknd dialing it back - but whenever Ariana tries to get louder and play more of that strident pop diva, she comes across as out of her depth. It doesn't nearly feel as natural as the straightforward potency of a Beyonce or Pink or Kesha. The closest she gets is 'Bang Bang', but casting her as the 'bad girl' in contrast to Jessie J's 'good girl' in the first verse is laughable. It's also why 'Break Free' is such a huge misfire of a song: it's a straightforward breakup song/empowerment anthem, but it sounds like Ariana is trying to amp up an alpha diva presence she just doesn't quite have yet. And part of this is that she's trying to play her sexuality with more of a garish pop sensibility than subtler R&B, which really strikes me as the poor choice in focus for her voice, at least right now. Because like it or not, Ariana Grande still sounds young, and pushing a more sexual side instead of a sensual side might be a misstep, especially when she's not really going for the subtle dominance of an artist like FKA Twigs - which might have been a better fit.

Now granted, some of that comes with age and time, and Ariana Grande's My Everything puts forward a pretty clear image of where she and her handlers want to take her music, which means this record does feel transitory but still surprisingly cohesive. And while I can't say there's any outright gems like 'Popular Song' on this album, it does feel a little better structured with well-balanced instrumentation, solid songwriting, and some pretty damn good pop tunes I do like. So I'm thinking a very light 7/10 out of ten and a recommendation. Folks, if you've been listening to the radio you might be starting to get sick of Ariana Grande, but My Everything might be enough to change your mind.

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