Hello, and welcome to Radio Rants. It’s summer time!
Summer might be blockbuster season for movies, but it’s like prestige season for the pop charts. If you can get your mitts onto a number one hit between May and August and hold onto that slot for a few weeks, you’ve got a great shot at the number one song of the year, or at least a lock in the top five. Past summer hit winners include massive jams like “Yeah!”, “We Belong Together”, “Umbrella”, “Promiscuous”, “I Kissed a Girl”, “I Gotta Feeling”, and “Rolling in the Deep”; songs that grossed the GDP of a small country. Last year renewed interest in the Summer Jam race, as the country found itself embittered in a long “Whoever loses, Pharrell wins” fight between Robin Thicke and Daft Punk.
I’ve already looked at (probably) this year’s Song of Summer: Iggy Azalea and Charli XCX’s “Fancy”, and today I’m looking at its famous number two: “Problem” by Ariana Grande, which itself features Azalea. I’m sure Iggy and Pharrell high fived over this.
Let’s talk about Ariana Grande. Right now, she’s where Miley Cyrus was in 2010, or Selena Gomez was last year: her wacky kids show is ending, and she’s trying to establish traction for her adult pop career. Her first album came out last year, and you probably heard “The Way” at some point, assuming it was some forgotten 90s R&B cut you forgot from the rollerskating rink. Grande actually has lots of potential; she’s a trained singer that has musicals and symphony performances under her belt, but in terms of pop, she hasn’t hit the heights where she’s doing controversial music videos or godawful versions of Disney songs yet. Which really isn’t the worst thing.
Alright, I try not to comment on an artist’s image, but holy shit: this voice comes out of this body. I just can’t get my head around the physics of that; does she have an extra diaphragm in one of her legs or something? It’d be like if Thom Yorke actually sang like Damiam Abraham from Fucked Up.
So, “Problem”. Grande’s still working in retro R&B, but the beat here sounds more modern. The brass section comes out in quick blasts during the verse with a little bit of synth bass, while the drums hit surprisingly hard and build during the pre-chorus. Despite being pretty tight individually, the verses of “Problem” sound unrestrained, especially with Grande letting loose from her first note. If you like your summer pop extra sugary, bright, and bouncy, then this is the one for you. The pre-chorus builds and builds as Grande sings higher and higher before the song bottoms out.
After Grande’s last big note, the song switches radio stations for you and turns into a bass-heavy trap beat with an uncredited (?!) vocal from Big Sean. Apparently this upbeat pop song by a former child star just needed to turn into “Mercy” for its hook. To be fair, the horns, drums, and Grande start working their way back in after the drop for the chorus, so at least it sound natural. Hell, I actually like this idea for the chorus since we’ve hit the point where pop songs don’t have to be limited to one genre, and it makes “Problem” stand out a bit more. It’s one of those moves that would have pissed me off a few years ago, but it just seems smart now. Pretty catchy, too.
But no, if we want to talk about the shitty parts of “Problem”, we have to mention Iggy Azalea. Her status as 2014’s New Star is all but a foregone conclusion at this point, but she’s won that title by default more than anything else. Charli XCX’s chorus swept her away on “Fancy”, and even those verses are head and shoulders above what she’s phoning in here. Her verse has no flow, adds absolutely nothing to the song, and has no tone to it at all. It fits “Problem” lyrically, but doesn’t sound anywhere near as fun as the Jock Jam-y sax behind it or Grande teasing “One less, one less, problem”. And for fuck’s sake, her only memorable line is the laziest “99 Problems” reference I’ve ever heard.
Actually, Azalea isn’t just a problem on “Problem”, but she’s Grande’s biggest problem of the summer. “Problem” sat at number two on the charts for a few weeks (it’s since slid to number 3 in favor of this bullshit I’m going to deal with eventually), arguably held back because of its universally reviled guest verse. The song that’s kept it out of the number one spot? Iggy Azalea’s own “Fancy”. I’m not saying the Illuminati run the charts, but if they were, it’d be pretty clear who’s in their recruitment class.
End of the day, I like “Problem”. It’s nothing that’ll probably make my year end list, but it’s good as frilly summer pop. Beside, if anyone besides Azalea’s going to have a run up the charts this year, my money’s on Grande going big. We could always do worse.