As was made clear during this past Sunday’s VMAs, Ariana Grande has emerged this summer to be the principal beneficiary of the backlash against Iggy Azalea. Though I’ll always have a special, guilty affection for “Fancy,” its default designation as this year’s anointed summer anthem ultimately worked against it, condemning it to overplay and over-scrutinization by fans and critics alike.
But not so with Ariana Grande, whose building momentum over the last several months reached its peak Sunday night. The decisive moment occurred when Ariana took the stage to accept the award for Best Pop Video. When the first person she thanked was Iggy Azalea, the camera cut to the song’s noticeably unenthusiastic collaborator, who sat smirking glumly from her seat. The irony, of course, was that Iggy was essentially competing against herself as feature artist on Ariana’s song.
And when Azalea left the VMAs with exactly zero awards and having delivered a relatively forgettable performance of a song no one seems to love all that much, it was clear which artist was here to stay and which artist was already on her way out.
The bringing into focus of the summer’s strange, surprising pop narrative of Ariana vs. Iggy happened with auspicious timing for Ms. Grande, with her new album My Everything dropping at just the right moment.
That Ariana would reign so victorious this summer makes perfect sense. Ariana is young, vocally talented, and an astonishing master of that impossible feminine dialectic of being “the perfect combination of sexy and cute.” But perhaps the most distinctive characteristic she has is an endearing air of humility and graciousness to what she does, setting her apart from the bombastic and seeming obliviousness of Iggy Azalea in particular.
And her new album is great.
The pleasure in this album is the manner in which Ariana’s voice oscillates smoothly from dance anthem to pop ballad, signaling an artistic dexterity associated with the long-term A-list of pop celebrity. In that same vein, Ariana effortlessly integrates a host of interesting hip-hop guest appearances, including Big Sean, Childish Gambino, the Weeknd, and A$AP Ferg.
The album ties together wonderfully, and the whole thing just works. The soft intro track is actually pretty enough to not skip, followed by the album’s energetic lead single “Problem.” Next, we get two decent if straightforward pop tracks in “One Last Time” and “Why Try,” boasting writing/production credits from David Guetta and Benny Blanco, respectively.
The Zedd-produced “Break Free” is hitting peak popularity now, and forms a solid core to the album. Incidentally, if you have not yet had the pleasure of viewing the video for this song, drop everything. She fights aliens, applies laser lipstick, and launches rockets out of her chest, all the while channelling classic sci-fi camp from Star Wars to Barbarella. It’s the most fun you’ll have all week.
One of the most interesting songs on the album is “Best Mistake,” an introspective track featuring her new love interest Big Sean. Ostensibly, the track represents a thinly veiled dialogue between the two artists as “they have been spending more time together and recently have been getting very close” (going so far as to hold hands in public!). “Be My Baby” is a great track grounded in a very Mariah sense of rhythm (an overemphasized comparison that is nonetheless hard to avoid at times). On “Break Your Heart Right Back,” she somehow manages to employ that same goddamn Diana Ross sample to new effect, using it as a subtle cultural touchstone rather than structuring her entire song and image around it (*cough* Nicki).
On “Love Me Harder,” her voice lines up so perfectly with that of the Weeknd that I kind of wish these two would stop everything and record a collaboration record together. The just-risqué-enough hip-pop jam “Hands on Me” follows impossibly from the swelling, tearful piano ballad “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.” Finally, “My Everything” closes the record out, another piano serenade that beautifully showcases the album’s enduring asset: Ariana’s voice.
Admittedly, there’s very little one could honestly call “daring” or even “unique” on the record, as most of it is clearly devoted to taking the least amount of risk possible. But if you consider the varied success, at best, of supposedly radical pop experiments like Miley’s Bangerz, Ariana’s orthodoxy isn’t necessarily a vice. My Everything has Ariana sticking to what she’s obviously so good at. There’s legitimately not a bad song on the entire album, and it’s hard to overemphasize how rare that is for a mainstream pop release.