Ariana Grande steps out of her own shadow with My Everything
One of the great joys of pop music is watching an artist find their voice in real time, in full view of the public. Ariana Grande looks like she still has a lot of growing up to do, but her 2013 debut worked for exactly that reason. “I wanna say we’re going steady like it’s 1955”; Yours Truly was a throwback to an era before cynicism existed. Part doo-wop, part 90s R&B, all Disney princess, pop debuts rarely feel so perfectly geared to their stars-in-making. But less than 12 months later, the world’s most doe-eyed, feather-voiced popstar wants in on the big leagues. Yours Truly garnered floods of Mariah Carey comparisons — compliments, really — because it had few contemporaries. My Everything steps out of her shadow, and into the less forgiving world of 2014 chart pop.
A year ago, the notion of Ariana Grande on a legitimate banger would have been laughable. But of 2014’s various songs of the summer, “Problem” is unapologetically the weirdest. Ariana Grande’s voice is notable for two things: its unflappable sweetness, and her effortless vocal range. Yours Truly crafted songs within her limitations; on “Problem”, Max Martin straight-up pushes her off a cliff. You can’t sing that high note and not sound manically distressed, if you can even hit it at all. It’s pop music pushed to its extremes — logical transitions be damned, Grande’s highs smash directly into that whispered chorus, which doubles as the quietest drop of all time. There’s barely a rhythmic or melodic center, it constantly threatens to go off the rails; but hell, when even Iggy Azalea’s feature delivers, you know it’s a hit.
“Break Free”, the Zedd-produced second single, works for the exact opposite reason. Grande doesn’t have the gravitas for real heartbreak, nor the sexuality to sell desire, but she summons pure head-in-the-clouds joy like no one else. “Break Free” goes down so easily you don’t even realise the lyrics make no sense. “Thought of your body, I came alive”, she coos with a totally straight face, before unleashing the bridge-into-final-chorus high note of the year. That one glorious moment might be worth every indie, apologetically “pop”-in-denial album this year. Voices like hers were made for this.
Crucially, Ariana Grande has that one indefinable quality, all too uncommon in pop: good taste. On the bonus track “Bang Bang”, Grande brushes up against Jessie J, queen of egocentric, screechy oversinging. They’re both graduates from the Whitney Houston school of melisma, but Grande couldn’t oversing if her life depended on it. Hell, the album’s most understated moment, the Big Sean-featuring “Best Mistake”, sounds like a Broadway-spotlight soliloquy as written by Drake. Every time My Everything threatens to play it safe — whether it’s David Guetta and Ryan Tedder’s oversized Coldplay-EDM, underwritten R&B, or an opportunity for diva theatrics — Grande renders everything unusually listenable. It’s easy to call the album tracks filler — and it seems like they should be going through the motions — but they’re not. My Everything calls for something like seven different ways to deliver a radio-friendly not-quite-ballad, and Ariana Grande is all of them.
Still, My Everything feels limited by the scope of the pop machine. Grande is deceptively canny — it’s no coincidence she has two year-defining singles — but her voice demands old-school songwriting chops, more than producers-turned-songwriters. “Break Your Heart Right Back” samples Diana Ross, but why shouldn’t Grande just be her? Yours Truly evoked Mariah, but where are the Carole King cowrites? Is something like that even possible anymore? Hell, even Mark Ronson will do.
Ariana Grande probably hasn’t even heard her own best song. The six-minute Director’s Cut mix of Yours Truly’s “Baby I” unfolds like a vision, transforming her into the classic house diva she should’ve been all along. It was one of Frankie Knuckles’ last remixes before his death, but it’s so blissful he might have issued it from heaven itself. What’s the moral of this story? A little nostalgia goes a long way. And nothing can hold Ariana Grande back.