Saturday, May 21, 2016

Dangerous Woman | Ariana Grande

Each of Ariana Grande's studio albums opens with a dreamy ballad: her debut album, with fan-favorite "Honeymoon Avenue," and her follow-up, with an 80-second clip of dreamy vocal acrobatics. "Moonlight" brings her third record, Dangerous Woman, to life with grace, blossoming from a music-box chime into a romantic, cotton candy flavored waltz. It's innocent. It's sweet. It sounds as if it were crafted amid the honeymoon stages of a shiny new relationship. But like the introductory track on her last album, it doesn't foreshadow the rest of the material to come; after "Moonlight," she spends 50 minutes proving to listeners why the glistening opener is no longer the album's title track.

The remaining 14 tracks sway between seduction ("Side to Side," "Dangerous Woman"), silky smooth intimacy ("Leave Me Lonely" with Macy Gray, "I Don't Care," "Thinking Bout You"), and unapologetic bombast ("Greedy," "Bad Decisions"), all unifying into one solid representation of its title. The fat has been cut away from the army of producers enlisted to work on Grande's previous albums to facilitate this cohesion, with primary production responsibilities given to Tommy Brown, Swedish power-pop wizard Max Martin, and Martin's nearly identical partner Ilya Salmanzadeh, who, in turn, prove their own versatility. Imagine it: the man who shaped up signature sounds for Britney Spears and the Backstreeet Boys has now helped steer Grande, once a woman wandering somewhat aimlessly through R&B and powerhouse pop, towards her most consistent, most 'Ariana Grande' record yet -- one that is equal parts sultry and ear-catching. My Everything seemed like such an explosive statement in its day -- Yes, I say "in its day" as if 2014 is so many years behind us -- but after she unleashed Dangerous Woman, it's clear she was just getting her feet wet on her sophomore record.

My Everything had a bit of, well, everything in its reaches: standard synthpop, horn-laden R&B (the same kind she tried to carry over to this record with "Focus" but axed at the last minute), innocent piano ballads, pounding electronic dance... anything Grande could experiment with, she did, like a kid in an ice cream parlor who wants a sample of every flavor. Nonetheless, the lack of cohesion didn't kill the set; it proved that Grande's pipes could be put to use in just about any sonic environment and that she is capable of experimentation. It also revealed that Ariana Grande was an unapologetic little sex kitten in the making: "Problem" was deemed risque compared to her previous material, and "Hands On Me" and "Love Me Harder" upped the hip-gyrating ante.

The dominatrix latex bunny album cover and the voyeuristic video accompanying the title track alone prove that sexuality is a crucial subject to Grande's craft this time around -- and for a good cause. She has suggested the extra skin and provocative sound are used as tactics to validate women as sexual beings. In a time when male celebrities are praised for their shirtless bodies every day, Grande wants to do as she does here without the shame that is attached to a female's celebration of her own body and desires. All of her contemporaries -- fellow former teen stars Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez, and Demi Lovato -- have long been slammed for their racy adult transformations, proving that Grande's underlying message serves a purpose.

But who has time to shame her when we have this album to enjoy? Let's not kid ourselves here: she has fulfilled her mission with precision. This record is hot. The synthesized harmonies in the bridge of "Sometimes," the entirety of "Touch It," that guitar tickle and 6/8 beat of the title track... Get your thermometers because it's sizzling, people. And at times, it's downright dirty -- most blatantly on "Into You" and "Let Me Love You," and in more of a "read between the lines" fashion on the Nicki Minaj-featuring, tropical house-dabbling "Side to Side." (On that last track, just pay close attention to the beginning of Minaj's verse, which seems to have been forced into the track in order to drop the lowest common denominator from the OG "Bang Bang" trio and make another radio hit billing. There's mention of a "dick bicycle" in there. Grande has a sense of humor about it, though.)

Even this record's dance tracks radiate heat, pulsating like neon lights in a warm, sticky club. "Knew Better / Forever Boy," and more importantly, "Be Alright" are the deep dance tracks that I never would have expected from Ariana Grande, but they're the ones that I never realized I couldn't die happy without. Pieced together with keynotes of disco, funk, and uptempo neo-soul, "Greedy" leans into a different kind of groove and drives full-speed ahead with a much-appreciated key change. And on the most crucial note, "Into You" is the banger to end all bangers. Once those jagged synths and double-tracked vocals kick the chorus into high-gear, it becomes apparent why it may just be one of the best pop tracks 2016 has spawned.

She may have entered pop superstardom just two years ago, but Dangerous Woman already proves that she doesn't belong anywhere else. (Really, "Into You" alone tells us that. I know what you're thinking, and no, that's not an exaggeration.) It's a sleek collection that doesn't overpower the talent at hand. Actually, this is the first time Grande is the true focus of her own record (although I will say Macy Gray offers some solid competition on "Leave Me Lonely"). Unlike her previous releases, both overloaded with collaborations and hoards of producers, this record is Ariana Grande at her least formulated, at her most genuine. She was a singer before -- an extremely talented one, at that. But this record has made her an artist. One with a vision, one with a passion, and now more than ever, one with distinction.

Dangerous Woman is available now under Republic Records. Alongside a standard edition, a retailer-exclusive pressing can be found at Target department stores.

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