Ariana Grande stumbles on near-pop perfection

Dangerous Woman [Explicit]If a group of scientists got together in a laboratory to create the perfect pop star, Ariana Grande would be the result of such a project: she’s ridiculously telegenic, beautiful, and talented, and possessed the sort of cross-over appeal that makes her music marketable to tweens and teens as well as their moms (and their gay uncles). And like virtually every young female pop star, Ariana Grande hasn’t enjoyed the affection of “serious” rock critics. And that’s too bad. On her third studio effort, Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande (along with a crowd of producers and songwriters) releases a nearly-perfect pop record.

Despite its title, there’s little that’s dangerous about Dangerous Woman. And though the cover with Granda donning a fetish-like mask, little of the songs hint at anything deeper or darker than unrequited love. Dangerous Woman is an aggressively mainstream record, one that is supposed to appeal to a wide format of pop radio: there are soulful pop ballads and dance songs – these tunes would sound comfortably being piped through the sound system of a department store or being played at a local gay club. There’s little innovation with Dangerous Woman and it’s a largely safe and unambitious record, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing: in this current landscape in pop music, albums often serve as little more than skeletal homes for hit singles. To its credit, Dangerous Woman is solid and consistent.

The album’s opener is a pretty ballad that takes its cues from swinging doo-wop and will remind listeners yet again of how much Ariana Grande owes to Mariah Carey (the song sounds like a 2010’s take on “Vision of Love”). “Let Me Love You”  is another song that has Grande sound earily like Carey (aping the diva’s slightly-nasal delivery when performing mid-tempo, sultry urban-pop ballads). When Grande’s debut album came out, reviewers noted the similarities between she and Carey, and it sounds as if she’s taking the comparisons to heart.

Other ballads litter the record, making good use of Grande’s impressive pipes: the title track is a slow-burning number with some dramatic wall of sound synths that makes the song sound like Grande’s audition to sing the next Bond theme; “Thinking Bout You” is a stately slow song which boasts a strong vocal performance  and an epic production that makes Ariana Grande’s case for Celine Dion’s successor; “I Don’t Care” is a solid effort to showcase Grande’s sensual side; “Knew Better/Forever Boy” is a good ballad with some interesting vocal effects that has Grande stepping ever so slightly outside radio-friendly pop.

And though Grande’s voice is well-suited for ballads, the more uptempo songs are highlights, too, including the album’s best moment, “Be Alright,” a fantastic house song that is at once an affectionate nod towards the singer’s sizable queer fan base and a wonderful wink back at 90s disco. Grande moves even further back into the 1980s with “Greedy” a shiny, spike dance ditty with some nifty horns. Both songs while mining the past don’t feel fusty or stale – instead, she successfully updates some of the tropes of 80s and 90s dance music. And “Into You” sounds state-of-the-art with its beeps and bloops, but doesn’t sound dated or silly.

Like every decent superstar release worth its salt, Grande has some famous friends stop by: Nick Minaj enlivens “Side to Side,” a decent reggae-lite tune, with her overs-sized personality, and manages to give the silly novelty number some oomph and credibility. Future pops in for the slow, churning “Everyday,” and a somewhat surprising cameo by Macy Gray on “Leave Me Lonely” shows off the “I Try Singer” at her best, doing a great Nina Simone impression (while Grande takes a solid stab at 70s soul balladeering).

As with any album boasting this many tracks, there will be some filler – “Sometimes” is an affecting, if innocuous ballad that is so light it threatens to float away and uber-producer Max Martin dollops a lot of his sonic gloss over his tracks, rendering them indistinguishable from the other radio hits he helms. But even if his songs feel a bit bland and cookie-cutter, they’re still okay examples of solid craftsmanship.

Unfortunately because Ariana Grande’s main audience consists of teen girls and gay men, Dangerous Woman won’t get the critical acclaim of her peers. It’s a shame because while she doesn’t try to change the music world like Beyonce does with the excellent Lemonade, nor does she possess the artistry of Adele, she’s still a contender. Dangerous Woman doesn’t show significant growth from Grande’s other two studio efforts, but that’s okay. She’s young and has time to grow as an artist. In the mean time, as a product of escapist fun, Dangerous Woman more than fits the bill.






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