As an admitted but oft-ashamed pop-music enthusiast, three albums slated for a 2014 release appealed to my radio-conditioned and Tumblr-pressed tastes above all others – Kanye West’s follow up to Yeezus, Taylor Swift’s 1989, and Ariana Grande’s sophomore album, My Everything.
What do these three albums and artists have in common? Virtually nothing, and that’s what, for me, makes them so special. I know it’s hard enough to believe someone can like both Yeezus & Red, but briefly, follow…
Kanye West makes music that essentially says, “fuck the radio,” then gets his ego-bruised when the radio won’t play his singles. (Have your heard that shoddy leak of “All Day?” Ye’s about to be all in your airwaves again.) Taylor Swift has successfully gone from singing songs about Tim McGraw to having Skrillex-like drops on her singles and you almost forgetting she ever had any country twang in that voice…
Ariana Grande, with her debut, Yours Truly, made an album that was a hybrid of 90’s Mariah-esque R&B with 50’s fantasies of going steady and holding hands while slurping on root-beer floats. How did that even exist in 2013? From a 20 year old raised in Boca Raton, Florida? Who spent her adolescence growing up on Nickelodeon and who cites her main inspirations as Judy Garland and Imogen Heap?
Kanye, Taylor, Ariana…these artists aren’t cookie-cutters of those that have come before them. There’s no blueprint to build these particular stars. No one else can make their music but them.
Now, let’s not get this confused, Ariana Grande is a long journey away entering the same super-star system that Kanye and Taylor have long been accustomed. But she’s set on making that journey, and My Everything could send her into hyperspeed towards getting there.
The album’s first single, “Problem,” certainly helped. “The Way,” Ariana’s biggest hit off Yours Truly, topped off at number 9 on Billboards’ Hot 100. The Iggy Azalea featured “Problem,” debuted at number 3, eventually moving up to two. The horn-heavy single made an impressive case for song of the Summer, while her second single, “Break Free,” and bonus track with Jesse J and Nicki Minaj, “Bang Bang,” both catapulted into the top ten.
Three songs simultaneously in the top ten is the stuff of pop legends… (okay, maybe not. Iggy Azalea’s doing it right now, and only Adele & Ashanti have done it before… lol – nonetheless, an impressive feat!) And while the numbers are noteworthy, is the album?
The album’s one-minute “Intro” opens with vocal riffs that are enough to pull you into Grande’s world. “I want you with me on the road to the sky…,” she says. “This I promise you,” before blasting into “Problem.” Not precisely a smooth transition, a recurring problem on My Everything. But the verve of the now omni-single helps you move on quickly.
This high-energy carries onto the next song, “One Last Time.” The David Guetta co-written track has some “Take Care” drum-thumping that makes you think Drake would’ve sounded incredibly good on this one. The next, “Why Try,” one of the album’s stand-outs, is sonically very similar to Beyoncé’s “XO.” Next she “Breaks Free,” which, Zedd solo aside, is a fantastic pop-track that we would be playing ten years down the road if it weren’t for that Zedd solo. (Did I mention I don’t like that Zedd solo?)
This deep into the album, it’s plain to see she’s almost entirely abandoned her 90’s dreamscape and you’re starting to miss Harmony Samuels, the man who helped craft the unique sound on Yours Truly. While still a producer on the album, he’s handed over the executive title to Scooter “You-Only-Know-Who-I-Am-Because-Of-Bieber” Braun. While Everything (so far) sounds “good,” ultimately there are a lot of varying sounds happening here, all of which sound too much like something you’ve heard before.
Unfortunately, Everything takes a turn for the worst on “Best Mistake,” the Big Sean featured promotional single that seems satisfied with putting you to sleep. While Grande seems to reclaim a bit of her 90’s swagger on “Be My Baby” and even re-samples Diana Ross “Coming Out” a la “Mo Money Mo Problems,” there’s nothing particular memorable about either song.
“Love Me Harder,” the Weeknd featured track, feels like an unhappy medium between two parties who really don’t know how to blend their sound, and thus, make a track that’s not good enough for either of them. And to make matters even more unfortunate, this rough patch is followed by a worse mistake than “Best Mistake” in “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart,” with the only plausible reason for this track not being cut from the album is the fact that it’s written by Harry Styles and Ms. Grande was prudent enough to avoid a war between the Arianators & Directioners.
As the album concludes, and I wrap up this review, I really want to skip “Hands On Me,” featuring ASAP Ferg, but then we’re just not being honest with each other. Considering both artists are extremely talented and likable, it pains me to say exactly what you’ll think when you hear this one – it’s almost unlistenable. Go listen and please tell me it’s not true, because I don’t want to believe it either.
“My Everything,” the title track, somewhat salvages the less than satisfactory second-half of the album. Ignoring the inevitable fact that the lyrics will be seen on every tween’s twitter and as Instagram captions post-middle-school heartbreak, Ariana is vocally as good as ever. Sultry, a shade short of sexy, she reminds you why you fell in love with her voice to begin with. No other contemporary pop-star can make the sounds that she makes.
While My Everything does everything in Grande’s power to propel her into the pop-star elite, the singles (“Problem,” “Break Free,” “Bang, Bang”) may have already done that. With My Everything, Grande is at the top of the charts but not necessarily at the top of her game. I look forward to a time when the two coincide and Ariana Grande makes the classic she’s truly capable of making.