Review Summary: "you're a princess to the public but a freak when it's time"
Ariana Grande is in way too much of a spotlight right now to really stay sane. She's a crowd-pleaser in the mainstream celebrity scene, has ridiculous potential in the mainstream pop crowd after the three absolutely massive hits of 2014, and even receives controversial adoration from some members of the music press. This is all just magnified by the persistent fight against her reputation as naive she earned back in her Victorious days. Over time, she has gradually transformed from a Nickelodeon star to a blatantly bedroom-oriented R&B juggernaut releasing tracks like "Bang Bang" and "Touch It." Meanwhile, she's been literally winking at her rabid Twitter fanbase, her television appearances on Jimmy Fallon and SNL have gone viral, and the Playboy (let's not pretend it's anything else) mask on her album cover was briefly a filter on Snapchat. Staying relatively ordinary if very fun in the public eye, this sensual shifting of artistic gears pleases most of the fanbase and gives at least the appearance of maturity to the allegedly serious music scene. But is she really getting there? Is this really the mature album My Everything showed hints of, or is it just the product of too much PR?
Honestly, that's not an easy question to answer. This is definitely a hot major-label album from 2016, with all of the pros and cons that go along with that. On the one hand, there's little to no artistic depth in this. Her lyrics are maybe slightly stronger than usual, with a lot less depth of subject. There are no more complex relationship details, or even really relationship details period - this album is a giant middle finger, with both connotations. Despite commentary to the contrary, there are very few mainstream albums being created now that are this consistently straddling the line between attraction and lust. Love in its purest form is caring about others and trying to give them everything. It has been removed from this piece in exchange for lustful attempts to take everything from others. It's not as fractured as, say, My Everything, but Dangerous Woman doesn't know how to give much of anything new to the world, besides whatever the minimum is necessary to stay in the public's relatively forgiving eye. She's self-aware, at least. "Greedy" blatantly states her attitude about love, probably a little sarcastically but still true regardless. If you're looking for more evidence, listen to "Touch It" and try to find literally anything that has to do with her lover's side of the relationship, instead of complaints. It's actually a little scary to think that one of the world's biggest celebrities thinks this way about relationships.
Lyrically, obviously it's shallow. But it makes it worse that she's really not willing to take any artistic risks in her relationship with the public. Anyone who has been paying attention to Ariana should have seen pretty much everything here coming. Even the odd tracks out are not innovative at all in the grand scheme of things. On the plus side, besides some really awful tracklist order decisions towards the front half, the album flows surprisingly well. This should be normal by now, but it's still worth celebrating the connectedness of those final tracks. And the overall feel stays relatively consistent, which helps tie together the album nicely.
In other good news, there's still a lot to be said for artists who can master something someone else invented. She might not reach as many peaks as fans would expect, but there's still a lot to be said for what Ariana can accomplish. Few musicians can genre hop this well. No one track on here is really bad, just boring occasionally. There's, ballads ("Moonlight," "Thinking Bout You"), slow jams ("Let Me Love You," "I Don't Care"), upbeat dance tracks ("Into You" particularly) and even throwbacks to her original Mariah vibe ("Bad Decisions"), and everything else. All of the other stuff in that second paragraph are relevant, sure, but this is an Ariana Grande album. In case you forgot, Ariana Grande is one of the most talented vocalists of the past 10 years. Every pop fan has heard singers that really just rely on the production and don't deliver much of anything interesting. On the other hand, there are hardly any producers that can keep up with Ariana's voice. "Ain't nobody like me" is right - every single non-feature vocal on this fifteen track album is performed both gorgeously and charismatically. That's a ridiculous accomplishment. Regardless of how shallow her songwriting and lyrics may be, she really needs to be remembered for her absolutely brilliant voice.
On the same lines, understating how powerful some of this production is would be criminal. Nothing is as immediately huge as "Problem" or "The Way but anyone who enjoys pop music honestly should find a new favorite here. Sure, it borrows heavily from others, but that doesn't really matter that much if it does it better. The drum use is perfect (check out the first cymbal on "Knew Better/Forever Boy"), the synths create subtly aggressive tension, vocals are chopped and pitched just enough to satisfy a generation raised on Kanye production, and, perhaps most notably, alternative-R&B-esque empty/echoing segments are employed tastefully. The biggest problem is that some songs just don't add any interest. If your first chorus is literally identical to your last, you're doing something wrong (and no, a key change doesn't really count - looking at you, "Greedy"). Listeners ought to be excited by the end, more drawn into it instead of growing tired. In the scale of the album, however, it's not so frustrating. And the songs that actually successfully ensnare that fresh feeling the whole time manage a lot. Rap verses help significantly, with Future and some seriously exaggerated growling synths saving "Everyday," and "Let Me Love You" escaping from overt seriousness thanks to Lil Wayne's hilariously quotable bars (Personal favorite: "she says she's single and I'm her feature!"). "Bad Decisions" really could have been cheesy, but Ariana's wink-to-frown lines, cut off by a brief but absolute silence, lets the triumphant chords feel justified. Even "Into You," possibly the most repetitive track on the album, manages to survive because of Ariana's little vocal flourishes and harmonizing at the finale.
So was it a PR stunt or a legitimate maturation? Yeah, she's definitely grown out of naivety. Ariana knows what she wants. Maybe next time around the whole album-hype-cycle she'll get to that next level of maturity everyone craves - enlightenment. But why is that even the question on critics' minds? It's way more important to ask if her music has become better. Not her as a person, otherwise the music press is no more than TMZ with longer words and more elitism. The answer to that is - yes. Dangerous Woman tries what fans knew all along - that she has the ability and the team to make some consistent, meaningful, enjoyable statement. It's pretty consistent, almost meaningless, and very enjoyable. Listeners know now more than ever the potential she has for something that fulfills all three - it's only a matter of time, the world's patience versus her sanity.