If The Grande Machine seems to be operating on overload right now, that’s because it is: There are simply one too many cooks in the kitchen on Ariana Grande‘s scattered sophomore record, My Everything.
From A$AP Ferg to The Weeknd to Max Martin to Childish Gambino to Zedd, the record boasts no less than eight features (that’s including the noisy Jessie J and Nicki Minaj banger “Bang Bang” and excluding “Break Free,” because a producer is not a feature) and nearly two dozen songwriters and producers in total, resulting in something of a cross between a Cher Lloyd-esque tween-pop album and Mariah Carey‘s Rainbow on speed.
But Ariana is also being positioned as The Next Great Hope in what has proven to be a truly lackluster year of pop in 2014, providing us with not one, but two reliably fizzy summer bangers: The horn-heavy Song Of Summer ’14 runner-up “Problem” with Iggy Azalea, and her euphoric emancipation anthem for the clubs (and, let’s be real here, mostly the gays): “Break Free.”
Yet as a result, Ari’s believability as a pop star suffers as she shifts away from the early ’90’s R&B throwback, Mariah-biting crooner on her 2013 debut Yours Truly into a more anonymous multi-headed pop monster, all vying for your attention (and money) at once.
While the two lead singles are, far and away, the most obvious offerings on the record, the album’s greatest moments lie in the more subtle, synth-filled slow burners, including the magnificent “Love Me Harder,” a lush Max Martin-helmed collaboration with late night R&B crooner, The Weeknd. (Some might question his involvement on this album, but hey — money talk$!) Like a blend of Jennifer Lopez‘s “First Love,” Kylie Minogue‘s “The One” and Lady Gaga‘s “Do What U Want,” Ariana sensually drifts her way across warm synthesizer ripples. “Love me, love me, love me, harder, harder, harder,” she sweetly coos. (The subtle innuendo there is also ace.)
“One Last Time” is another (more Swedish) victory, playing exactly like something off of an Agnes record Loreen‘s brilliantly underrated Heal — and shades of Drake‘s “Take Care” as well. The gorgeous, melancholy thumper sees Ari craving for just one more touch as a side chick: “One last time, I need to be the one who takes you home,” she begs.
The melodic and moody “Best Mistake” puts the spotlight on Ariana’s vulnerable vocals in all the right ways (despite the needless Big Sean feature), while the Ryan Tedder co-helmed “Why Try” is, in the grand tradition of all Ryan Tedder co-helmed power ballads, a solid slow-marching burst of earworm emotion, much in the same way as Beyonce‘s “Halo” or Leona Lewis‘ “Happy.”
Occasionally, Ari’s personality shines through, as with the somewhat bizarre, Diana Ross-sampling “Break Your Heart Right Back,” in which the LGBT-friendly pop princess throws it back in her ex-boo’s face after he falls in love with a guy — but really, it plays more like an inside joke between her and her brother than a genuinely good song.
A few songs feel utterly required as well, especially in terms of ballads, like the soggy “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart,” which could have only made the tracklisting because of the Harry Styles co-write. And then there’s the title track, which is the sonic equivalent of an extra credit school assignment. Considering “Everything” was crafted by the same producers behind the soaring Yours Truly anthem “Honeymoon Avenue,” this is hardly a worthy successor.
By the time the sexy/silly Darkchild-produced “Hands On Me” comes slinking into the speakers, it’s clear that there’s just no creative direction whatsoever — this is Arianaoke on top of Pussycat Dolls rejects. That’s great for people who love #unapologetic trashy pop (like me!), but it’s hard to shake the feeling that there are still better candidates to tackle nearly all of these tracks.
There’s no denying that Ariana’s voice is top notch; truly one of the finest of all the up-and-coming pop girls. (Her enunciation? That’s a different story.) It’s the image and material that’s lacking: Ditch the uncomfortable sexy baby Lolita styling (she’s 21!), drop the slightly above average pop diva discards and come with something that feels less tense and forced than that massive ponytail being pulled tight from her head.
There are at least a few solid pop gems buried within this hit-or-miss collection but, for the most part, this album feels like a barely believable record label Frankenstein. And rather than giving us her everything, My Everything attempts to be a little bit of everything all at once, resulting in an album that screams A&R rather than Ari.
‘My Everything’ was released on August 25. (iTunes)