Review Summary: Ari's Airy Arias
If I've had one complaint about Ariana Grande's career it's that her music suffers from "too many cooks in the kitchen" syndrome, which happens when an artist works with so many different songwriters and producers that pull them in so many different directions that their album sound like random mélanges of genres without any overarching vision or artistry tying them together. The one exception to this was her debut, which was a great (and still terribly underrated) pastiche of classic (especially 90s) R&B. Every album since then has succeeded, to the extent that they have, on the strength of their best songs and hits, while being replete with filler. Most of her post-debut albums have also suffered in how rarely they allow her to show off her magnificent voice and range. These issues are why I consider her best album the live k bye for now,
as not only did it act as a "greatest hits" of sorts, but it allowed her stretch her vocal wings, frequently with a backing band that sounds much more interested and alive than the stilted production on her albums.
goes some way towards fixing these issues as well. It's certainly the most coherent album of her career, stylistically feeling like an amalgamation of her R&B roots, the trap beats of her last two albums, and a new soundscape involving plucked and bowed strings and decadent layers of choral vocals. The title track
is a good example, opening with a pizzicato guitar and classic R&B beat-and-clap rhythm before a swelling violin brings in the bass. As the track progresses, Ari's multi-tracked chorus vocals join on various phrases for emphasis, the most prominent being in the chorus where they repeat the B-flat major VI at the end of the first two lines ("for you," "bedroom") before resolving to a beautiful suspended tonic chord on the third iteration of the phrase ("through hoops"), lending a haunted, lost, quality to the phrase. If this was a better written song that suspended tonic chord would land on a phrase more meaningful than "I'm in the Olympics, way I'm jumping through hoops," but for mainstream pop it’s at least musically interesting.
This style can be found all over the album. The opening track shut up
similarly has swelling strings, a pizzicato verse riff, multi-tracked chorus harmonies, and even a “third iteration change,” though with many variations. Here, for example, the “third iteration change” happens in the verses where the chorus-vocals accompany the end of each line, but on the third they lead to an ethereal 3-part harmony, that’s later varied again by introducing each layer separately, while the chorus introduces an awesome, chromatically descending variation. The track is also odd in its absence of any synth beats. It makes for a great contrast to the second track, 34+35
where Ari's giggle triggers the first beat of the album accompanied by a romantic violin melody. The overall vibe here being more sexually playful in opposition to the first track's accusatory playfulness.
Other tracks are purer throwbacks to her R&B days. my hair
is one highlight in this style, opening with a muted guitar riff that's just straight-up jazz. The verses feature an elegant organ (of all things) laying down subtle comp rhythms, while the chorus adds a soft layer of strings, some sparkling top notes, and an aloof, outro horn riff. love language
is another highlight, here anchored more strongly to an emphatic drum beat and an understated unison bass/electric piano riff that transitions into some lovely strings and tastefully tasty piano licks. The chorus is one of the catchiest on the album with Ari's deep, low-key, rhythmically potent vocals accompanied by an energetic violin melody.
The best track in the R&B style however is the slow, sensuous, off the table
featuring The Weeknd. Here, a deep, reverberant bass hit and echoing percussion (sounds like a wood block) sets the tone immediately. Ari’s aching vocals enter to fill in the pensive silence and stillness between the long, lingering beats. One awesome thing about this track is how the spaciousness adds a sense of independence to the vocals and instruments, as if freed from the confines of a strict beat, which also adds to both the profound sensuality and palpable unease; the best example is the descending guitar/bass riff that’s as smooth, warm, and inviting as a well-lubed and heated Fleshlight. The track also masterfully builds as Ari and The Weeknd’s voice starts soaring, soloing, and intertwining (one might say 34+35’ing) over a velvet bed of chorus vocals and synth strings. It’s a truly stunning track, certainly one of (if not the) best of Ari’s career.
If there’s a downside to the album’s stylistic consistency it’s that it can start to sound a bit samey after a while. This isn’t helped by the fact that there’s very few faster-paced “bangers” here, nor by the fact that the trap-influenced beats are the most uninspired of Ari’s career. The lesser tracks are almost uniformly those that rely most prominently on their beats with minimal accompaniment. motive
, for example, starts out sounding like a throwback to thank u, next
, but quickly sinks into a dull, repetitive groove that offers little else musically. Too many of these tracks also clog up the album’s second half, especially safety net, nasty
, and west side
span 3-out-of-4 tracks in a row.
Thankfully, the album closes strong with the positions
triumvirate, with pov
being another highlight. It’s the most gorgeous track on what is probably the most beautifully produced album of the year. Though less complex than off the table
it’s constructed from a similar principle that builds to some wonderful climaxes, allowing Ari to show off her range and tone to glorious effect.
It can be argued that, ultimately, this is just another inconsistent album from Grande, but the real issue is whether the album’s strengths—the stylistic coherency, the gorgeous production, the sensual and airy tonal qualities—make up for its deficiencies. I’m of the mind that it does, with this being my favorite Ari album since Dangerous Woman
. Though it still leaves me with the nagging feeling that arguably the greatest female vocalist of this generation still hasn’t quite fulfilled her potential in making music that lives up to the level of her phenomenal vocal talents.