Sunday, May 22, 2016

album review: 'dangerous woman' by ariana grande

It has been fascinating watching the evolution of Ariana Grande - and given that I've already covered two of her albums, I've had a front row seat to all of it.

Granted, evolution might not be the correct word for the carefully considered marketing and micromanagement of Ariana Grande's musical career, but there has been a progression, and I'm a little on the fence of how well it has worked. On the one hand, the instrumentation and production moving from Yours Truly to My Everything has only been a net positive, giving her breathy, soaring vocals the room they desperately need. And while the songwriting has been micromanaged, there have been real moments of maturity that have started to come through in her writing that has led to strong tracks, including the fantastic 'Love Me Harder' with The Weeknd.

But throughout the lead-up to her newest album Dangerous Woman, that progression has seemed shakier than ever. You can tell that her producers and handlers are pushing for a more explicitly sexy image and 'sound', and it's an open question whether or not Ariana or her writing team can pull it off. Part of this is her voice - when she sticks to more sultry, low-key R&B cooing it's believable, but she doesn't have that element of rawness in her delivery yet to believably pull off pop diva powerhouse, and her occasional sloppy enunciation doesn't help. But more than that, being 'sexy' is music is incredibly difficult to pull off well - sensual a little easier because you can modulate your range, but sexy requires a type of intimacy and poise that Ariana can't always pull off, which can make certain songs come across as hard to believe. And while this was an issue on My Everything, it looked to be a much bigger issue here, especially opposite artists like Lil Wayne and Future, who play in a very different type of sexuality than Ariana. That said, Dangerous Woman looked to have promise if only because Ariana had taken a much firmer hand in the writing process, with nearly double the credits from her last album, and with a smaller writing staff I had the hopes that this might actually work - so does she pull it off?

Well, she gets part of the way there... but this is one of those records that I have a hard time evaluating, because while there has always been a certain lack of cohesion to Ariana's records, this album pushes it further than ever before in its attempts to provide more definition for Ariana's sexualized persona... and really, the question of how much you buy into it will probably contribute to how much you like this album. For me... Dangerous Woman is good, but the flaws are becoming a lot more noticeable and a lot less excusable.

So how did we get to this point? Well, for a change in pace let's start off with the lyrics and themes, although in the latter case, you'd be stretching to find any cohesive theme to this record beyond Ariana's infatuation with a new paramour that inspires her to be take chances, make mistakes, and get messy. And I use the Magic School Bus reference here because on some level Ariana's brand of more explicit sexuality still isn't quite believable - I'll talk more about her vocals later, but the writing still has a certain naivete about it that doesn't reflect a lot of experience - hell, you can see it in the album art where her rubber mask has bunny ears! And the sequencing of this album doesn't help matters - you start thinking there's an arc with this new mysterious bad boy she falls for, how maybe it inspires some maturity or growth... and yet that doesn't really happen, especially when the 'bad boys' in question seem to mistreat her or at least raise some healthy skepticism from other people, which she even acknowledges on 'Side To Side'. You'd think there'd end up being a shift coming off of her excellent team-up with Macy Gray 'Leave Me Lonely', but then everything resets and the relationship is fine and Ariana is this insatiable sex kitten now. Okay, a little lacking in dramatic stakes, but I'll roll with it - up until you start digging into songs like the title track and realize that not just the guy is inspiring such sexual advances in Ariana, but that she thinks that all girls have this inner 'bad girl' within... yeah, the lack of deeper maturity and experience does show through here. 

But you know what, that can work too - if Ariana wants to explore her heightened sexuality while maintaining some vestige of control, that can come together. Doesn't really excuse the guy bossing her around on 'Moonlight', but as the record progresses to 'Greedy' and 'Into You' and 'I Don't Care', it clicks a fair bit better. But now we have to talk about guest stars and let's put aside Macy Gray and Nicki Minaj for a second. I've already said that Macy Gray offers a great older counterpoint to Ariana, and Nicki Minaj has always been the cooler older sister to Ariana whenever they team up, even if her verse here can feel a little disconnected as it reasserts dominance. But her male hip-hop collaborators... well, one amusing trend is that whenever a male rapper teams up with Ariana, she doesn't so much gain credit as they tend to lose it. And with Future, that's kind of happens - his verse is mostly forgettable on 'Everyday' and his contributions to this noisy non-sex song are peripheral. But then Lil Wayne shows up on 'Let Me Love You' and as I've said it before on Billboard BREAKDOWN this song makes me feel queasy. Forget the dour tone, that shrillness that creeps around the edges of the percussion, the stuttered chorus, what creeps me out is Lil Wayne rapping in no uncertain terms about having sex with Ariana - and not only is not sexy, it comes across like he's playing the Svengali taking advantage of a girl right after her breakup. And this is where Ariana's vocals don't always help her - she's slowly developing more of her dramatic range and adding a little more gravitas, helped by this album not requiring she play pop diva as often and stick in a more soulful R&B range, but she seems over her head singing opposite Lil Wayne, the guy who made I Am Not A Human Being 2. She still 'sounds' younger, and that alternately can make it feel like a pose or that she's in way over her head.

And the frustrating thing is that is not always the case, and this is where I think her production does a lot of heavy lifting. This is easily the most lush and full production that Ariana has ever had, and it can give her plenty of support and a warm cushion of multi-tracking that can make a much larger presence on record. It finally seems like someone has clued that the softer, slightly blurry multi-tracking that characterized so much of Mariah Carey's work in the 90s is a natural fit for Ariana, and right from the first song 'Moonlight' we get some of that, against delicate plucked guitar and a richer strings section. And that lush delicacy is a great fit for her - the smoky soulful pianos of 'Leave Me Lonely' with the muted menace of the bass, the rich strings section and brass of 'I Don't Care' with the slight hints of g-funk in the guitar, even the desaturated, bass-heavy darkness of 'Let Me Love You' could have worked if the lyrics were framed properly. And that depth in the production carries over to even more pop-flavoured songs - 'Into You' is the best example with the deep thrumming synth and that huge bridge, but you see it come through in subtler cases like the deeper drum timbre of the title track. And on that song, while I criticized it in the past for not having more of an edge in the guitars, thinking more on it that wouldn't make sense - there are already points on this album where Ariana gets swamped by her instrumentation, and even with multi-tracking her voice wouldn't be raw enough. That probably one of the reasons that songs like the reggae-touched 'Side To Side' or the buzzy, overmixed 'Everyday' or the choppy acoustic strumming on 'Someday' don't click with me as well - they don't give her voice the same room to breathe. Probably the closest she gets to it working well is 'Greedy' that even with the horns and funkier bassline is the closest she comes to pop - and even then, the biggest reason the song works is that key change that kind of comes out of nowhere.

But in the end... this album was a lot harder to dissect than I expected, mostly because more than any other Ariana Grande record it feels transitional. She's still evolving as a singer and while she's finally settling into production that works better for her voice, tonally and thematically this record is kind of scattershot. And while that would be crippling for album artists seeking to make coherent statements, I would argue Ariana Grande has never really done that - she's a singles artist, delivering nuggets of overheated pop-R&B still in that tentative phase of exploring sex. And while it's not believably mature or self-aware enough to tilt into that immaturity, there is a lovestuck sincerity to many of these tracks that is kind of charming, and does seem to reflect Ariana's genuine emotions. So while I don't think this is her best album - there isn't an outright standout like she's released before, and 'Let Me Love You' really is a miscalculation in terms of driving the atmosphere - I still like it enough to give it an extremely light 7/10; at the end of the day, I'm a sucker for some well-produced pop music, and she does deliver. More than ever, I'm fascinated by where Ariana Grande is going to land next - I suspect we're going to see a fair bit more of her in the future.

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