Review Summary: As one of the year's best pop albums, Dangerous Woman delivers where it counts but also could have been so much more.
For Ariana Grande, Dangerous Woman
had all the markings of becoming her definitive ‘breakout' record. Sure, Grande’s entire career has been – to some extent or another – a constant indulgence of the spotlight, but consistency has been the Achilles heel preventing her from ascending into the pop titan
status of women like Adele and Taylor Swift. We’ve always been left with a hit single here, a guest rapper there, and an extra side order of fluff. So when the title track was finally unleashed, decked out in a mysterious and almost jazzy atmosphere (and not to mention some particularly enticing lingerie), there was hope that this could be the record that puts Ariana over the top, while simultaneously allowing her to pursue her artistic ambitions instead of discovering how many different ways someone can rewrite the hit single ‘Problem.’ Once ‘Into You’ crashed the party – overflowing with its fun, flirty summer vibes to ensure that Dangerous Woman
would get all of the airtime it could possibly ask for – it was basically a done deal. What could possibly derail the momentum of this juggernaut as it approached its release date? The quick answer is nothing, as Dangerous Woman
remains one of this year’s most intriguing pop releases. However, this record also suggests that Ariana Grande may never reach that upper echelon, as she once again finds herself bound by her loyalty to genre clichés that sell and an inability to string together one totally cohesive album.
If Charles Dickens had written this, it would have been titled A Tale of Two Halves
, as the opening section of the album totally outdoes the latter in every way. ‘Moonlight’ is a bit of a doo-wop throwback, oozing with 1950s vibes and allowing Ariana’s gorgeous vocals to do all the heavy lifting. It’s the ‘Tattooed Heart’ of this record, and although it functions as a serviceable opener, it lacks that addictingly sweet chorus to elevate it beyond being just a pretty introduction to the record. The mid-tempo title track is the first moment that the album really shows flashes of becoming something special, as it sways to a seductive beat that feels like it was extrapolated from the most revealing scene of a James Bond
film. The lyrics are a cross between sexually charged and fully empowering, as at she sings, “somethin bout you, makes me wanna do things that I shouldn't” and “nothing to prove, I'm bulletproof.” ‘Dangerous Woman’ anchors the entire album, leading the way creatively while encompassing the general themes of the record quite adeptly. Almost as if to follow a pattern, Dangerous Woman
matches that slower, rhythm-oriented duo with a pair of beat-driven jams, ‘Be Alright’ and ‘Into You.’ While the second out of those is indisputably the better song, ‘Be Alright’ still brings with it one of the most addicting synth-beats on the entire record, in a rare instance where the musical/instrumental direction of an Ariana Grande song actually trumps the vocals/chorus/lyrical aspect. It’s refreshing, and it’s the kind of thing that proves that Ariana’s production team really knows what it is doing from time to time.
‘Side to Side’ kicks off the record’s midsection, and it’s one of the few instances here in which a song is actually bolstered by a featured rapper – courtesy of Nicki Minaj. The song possesses strong reggae influences, and the rhythm even sort of sways back and forth as the title suggests. Grande more than does her part vocally, delivering a fun and upbeat track to bridge ‘Into You’ and the much slower ‘Let Me Love You’, but the highlight is definitely Minaj’s series of verses near the end in which she quips, “body smoking, so they call me young Nicki chimney” and “If you wanna Minaj I got a tricycle.” Unfortunately, we’re forced to follow that up with the flip side of the same coin, witnessing how a rap contribution can either make or break a song. ‘Let Me Love You’ feels like Grande’s confessional track, and the general tone and tempo of the song create the ideal canvas for an outpouring of emotion: “I just broke up with my ex, now I'm out here single, I don't really know what's next.” Then, out of nowhere, here comes Lil Wayne with lines like “Girl you need a hot boy” and “what you need your ex for, I’m triple X.” The stark contrast between Minaj’s and Wayne’s lines are that Minaj put some effort into crafting at least somewhat clever turns of phrase, not to mention that the song lent itself to being coupled with hip-hop influences. ‘Let Me Love You’ doesn’t need anything else, but it gets it anyway in the unsubtle, brashly stupid form of Lil Wayne. It’s these kinds of decisions that prevent Dangerous Woman
from being what Swift’s 1989
was in 2014 or what Jepsen’s E•MO•TION
was in 2015; there are simply too many missteps directionally that could have been averted with a little better discretion.
While the slick and incredibly fun ‘Greedy’ does all it can to save an otherwise middling second half, Dangerous Woman
is mostly a downhill slope. ‘Leave Me Lonely’ (featuring Macy Gray) is an interesting track with some soul influence, but the guest contributions do little to help or hinder the album’s overall progress. The real travesty occurs on ‘Everyday’, where the blame lays squarely on Grande’s shoulders for agreeing to sing “He giving me that good shit / that make me not quit” while Future basically just repeats the word “everyday” – proving that in addition to possessing awful lyrics, it is also simple to a fault. For anyone who has heard any number of the scrapped songs from Dangerous Woman
that made the cut on various deluxe mintings, it’s frustrating to know that someone with the power to affect the tracklisting felt ‘Everyday’ was a more deserving entry than, say, ‘Step On Up.’ If anything, it confirms their allegiance to the tried-but-true formula of modern pop – if you attach a famous name to a song, it will sell. For an album that began as something with artistic vision and promise, it’s a bit of a letdown to see it fall back into the same old habits as often as it does. While ‘Bad Decisions’ and ‘Thinking Bout You’ bring things full circle with a return to slow and rhythmic balladry, it’s hard to shake the feeling that even on the beautifully sung closer, there is someone standing on the other side of the microphone checking off a box for “soulful, closing ballad.”
It’s not that Dangerous Woman
fails to love up to Grande’s standards, it’s that it shows such promising glimpses of eclipsing those standards only to come crashing back to Earth. Don’t get me wrong, this is still a very good pop album that will augment many listeners’ summer playlists. ‘Into You’ and ‘Dangerous Woman’ will undoubtedly enter December as song of the year contenders for the genre, a feat not easily accomplished even once on the same album. There are plenty of positives to take away from this, including that it is Grande’s most diverse record to date. However, the same snags that prevented Yours Truly
and My Everything
from really taking off haven’t gone anywhere. Perhaps it’s expecting a little too much from a twenty-two year old pop starlet – hell
, it might be expecting too much from commercialized pop in general – but at the end of the day Dangerous Woman
still feels unshakably safe. She appears to be in the right place creatively, but she just needs to take her own advice and break free
. There’s nothing wrong with continuing to sell singles, but from a woman with as much talent and potential as Ariana Grande – despite all of her achievements and successes – we should expect more.