Maybe it’s because we’ve had a few go’s of it now, or maybe it’s because Justin Beiber and Miley Cyrus showed us how bad things could get, but we’ve finally hit the point where teen stars can age out without a disaster happening mid-step. No one demonstrates that better than former Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande, here with her second album My Everything. Grande’s pop career had a soft opening in 2013 with the minor hit “The Way” from her debut Yours Truly, a collection of innocuous I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-Mariah pop jams that put the emphasis on Grande’s voice more than whatever she was singing. It kept her image, squeaky clean even by kid show standards, perfectly intact.
My Everything isn’t about outright destroying that image, but rather, subtly not mentioning it at all. Grande remains a sweet performer throughout, but she isn’t actively projecting innocence anymore; it takes a few listens (plus a The Weeknd cameo) to get the double entendre to “Love Me Harder”, and “Hands On Me” is less subtle with the opening tease of “Keep your hands on me/Don’t take them off/Until I say so”. By the time these two come up late in the album, they seem less shocking than an upfront presentation because by now, My Everything‘s established itself as a pop grab bag. And hey, taunting sex jams are part of pop, and Grande’s keen to play the part.
My Everything is Grande’s application as a jack of all trades pop star, and deliberately so. There’s something conscientious about these songs; without fail, there’s tailored production, tasteful writing, and ample opportunities for Grande to let loose with skyscraper vocals. It works: you really can’t fault the quality of the album on a song-by-song basis. She moves through Max Martin singles (“Problem”) and sample-heavy pop rap collabs (“Break Your Heart Right Back” with Childish Gambino) with the same sort of performance grace that’s quickly becoming her best strength and biggest weakness.
Let’s focus on the strengths first. Grande, more than most other pop artists, is able to emote and make her voice work with whatever she’s got behind her. She’s got the chops to pull off the somber effect of “Why Try” without tripping over the hip-hop drumline, and then sound playful on “Be My Baby” (produced by Cashmere Cat). The playful tracks, “Be My Baby”, “Problem”, “Hands On Me”, and “Love Me Harder” work better, since Grande can show more personality and presence with a livelier beat. She’s actually a perfect match for Zedd’s extroverted festival EDM; Grande runs full force to meet the towering synths in the chorus in a move where going big actually works. There are the requisite piano ballads–“Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” and the title track–and while they’re well performed, they’re nothing special.
That same “well done, but meh” criticism rings true for My Everything as a whole. While Grande’s a great performer, she can never sound like anything but a performer. It’s a curse that plagues a lot of stage/theater brats that turn pop at first; they’ve spent years jumping in and out of role and personas, and that learned performance-self hampers their ability to go full tilt like we expect from our pop stars (let it be known, Grande could stand to do worse). She has too much presence to disappear into a song ala Britney Spears, but too little personality to have it dominate one, ala Taylor Swift. She has trouble letting her hair down, in fewer words. Sam Smith’s avoided this problem by focusing on one type of song/sound, but Grande’s mile wide and inch deep approach doesn’t afford her the same flexibility. It doesn’t make My Everything a compelling listen.
Instead, the album’s like a gluten free vanilla cupcake: super sweet going down, and while delightful, doesn’t really beg for a repeat. It’s a well made, exceedingly well-sung record that’s only held back by tepid songwriting and pleasant but inert execution (ok, and some truly mediocre rap features). Grande does great work establishing herself as a competent pop singer, but she’s coming up short in personality and massive singles. But, this seems to be by design; My Everything‘s tasteful restraint implies Grande might be playing a longer game than we’re giving her credit. Three and a half out of five stars.
tl;dr: Ariana Grande makes her polite bid for pop music’s class president. 3.5/5