Ariana Grande is a household name for pretty much anyone who has a child under the age of twelve. For the last few years, she had been one of the stars of the popular Nickelodeon show Victorious. In 2013, she joined forces with Jeannette McCurdy from the smash Nickelodeon hit iCarly for another series called Sam and Cat. While this new show isn’t nearly as good as either of its predecessors, soon it’s not going to matter. Ariana Grande is going to be a superstar.
When she released her first single from her debut this year, the comparisons to Mariah Carey were coming fast and furious. There are good reasons for this. Grande has an impressive range with a whistle register and she knows how to use it. Add to this the fact that her single “The Way” is steeped in early nineties nostalgia with a fountain of gorgeous adlibs and a joyful vibe not often found in pop music these days. Not only are the comparisons understandable, they are inevitable. Yet anyone who thinks this girl is a cheap Mariah knockoff isn’t paying attention. First of all, Mariah has been doing that all on her own lately with live performances that make people wonder how she ever became the premier diva of the nineties. Second, while Ariana Grande has mastered the early nineties diva sound, she accomplishes far more than just that on her debut.
So does she live up to her promise? Most definitely. The album is fantastic. Effervescent and exploding with youthful exuberance, Grande is charismatic from start to finish. She’s given songs that showcase her pure tone, playful delivery and innate gift of delivering a melody. The album opens with the Broadway, doo-wop flavored “Honeymoon Avenue”. Opening with elegant strings before breaking down into a harmonized intro, the song has textures and depth in its sound. Her pop performance is well delivered and she even soars on the verses as she deftly gives the listener the melody. Sounding like it would be at home on Glee yet also fine on pop radio, the song is a versatile one. Maybe the coolest thing about the song is that it actually feels like the opening on a show in New York City.
“Baby I” is the second official single and it’s a love song pure and simple. The song is coy as she croons simply “Oh baby, baby, my baby” making it sound like both an invitation and an expression of adoration. The song is loaded with hooks and is immediately likable. It’s actually reminiscent of Ashanti if Ashanti had a mind-blowing range and silky smooth delivery. Other songs capture a similar vibe such as the album track “Right Here” where she coos over a bouncy and slightly urban production. “Lovin’ It”, sampling Mary J. Blige’s hit “Real Love”, is another charming track although not quite as strong as the others.
Another stand out from the album is “Piano”. It has a fairly basic production with bouncy piano chords, perky hand claps and a catchy melody but Grande delivers it with conviction. I can’t really pinpoint anything truly exceptional about the song but it comes together well. Vocally, it isn’t nearly as fancy as some of the other songs but it is engaging and utterly likable. Surprisingly, Grande doesn’t weigh the proceedings down with very many ballads. You would think that by having the voice she has, those would be her bread and butter but she doesn’t overindulge. The first ballad is the throwback sounding “Tattooed Heart” which channels groups like the Ronnettes. Her vocal is gorgeous and she sings it with passion. There are some sweet, saccharine-y strings reminiscent of The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”, a well-executed key change and plenty of vocal power. The second ballad is featured in the recently released film Mortal Instruments. “Almost Is Never Enough” is a duet with The Wanted singer Nathan Sykes. He’s got a great voice and they sound wonderful together. The song is piano driven and it’s a wonderful moment amidst all the feathery pop surrounding it. Oddly, Sykes sounds a little bit like Brian McKnight. These ballads are both different from each other yet still fit the theme of the album.
We don’t even get to her hit “The Way” until track eight and out of all the songs on the album, this channels Mariah Carey the strongest, someone who Grande has stated that she loves. Straight singing, I don’t think she really sounds like her idol but when she ad-libs she definitely invokes flashbacks to Mimi. The song features a riff off an old Fat Joe song, giving the whole thing a summery vibe. “You’ll Never Know” is more throwback cotton candy and just as irresistible. I feel like I’m about ten to fifteen years younger just listening to this song. The most pleasant thing about it is how carefree and light the song is. “Popular Song” is the only song that doesn’t quite fit in with the rest but there is a reason for this. This song was originally featured on Mika’s third studio album The Origin of Love and captures his style more than hers. Still, she duets with the slightly odd singer well and the result is both quirky and engaging.
Overall, from start-to-finish Ariana Grande puts her best foot forward. While the weakest track is “Lovin’ It” (and the more I hear it the more I am less convinced this is even true) there is no track on here that makes me want to press the skip button. Her voice is flawless (although, a little more enunciation would be nice), her songs are the very definition of pop/R&B hit and I think this album is going to be huge. I’ve been wrong before (looking at you Debelah Morgan) but I don’t think I am. Especially since Yours Truly debuted at number one. So if you want to know who is going to be dominating the radios a few years from now, check out this album.
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