“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”
Pop starlet Ariana Grande asks this on the immensely boring “Domino” clone “Bad Decisions”, the first of four entirely skippable bonus tracks on Grande’s third full-length album, Dangerous Woman. The thing is, Ariana, is that we have. Many times. From Miley Cyrus, the former country-pop child star turned sexually ambiguous inciter, to the inseparable Demi Lovato and Selena Gomez adding explicit, powerful sexuality to not just their music, but their identities as well, pop princesses have been turning into bad bitches for years. And I haven’t even mentioned the biggest example: the criminally under-appreciated Britney Spears, whose “Baby One More Time”, “Oops I Did It Again”, and (especially) “Toxic” have set the stage for these women to reinvent themselves into something much more mature than your average Disney child star.
Here’s the thing: Ariana Grande doesn’t have it in her to be a dangerous woman. She just can’t convince me of it. That’s not to say that she’s not among the best that pop has to offer today, because she is; it’s just that her desired transformation into a Britney-like figure just hasn’t hit its stride. And that’s fine, because when Grande’s at her best, there’s nobody better in modern pop music. But her best has never been tracks like “Dangerous Woman”, an admirable effort that falls just short of the Aguilera aspirations it had. No, Grande’s best has been something entirely different.
That’s not to say that there aren’t highlights on Dangerous Woman; quite the contrary. Right off the bat, we have the lovely “Moonlight” (which would have been a much better title for the album), a moving ballad about the beauty of love. I adore this song. Absolutely adore it. It’s the cutest piece of music I’ve heard since Sophie’s “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye”, which is saying something. The strings (both bowed and plucked) on the refrain, the synthesized bells that open the track, and especially the way that Grande sounds like she’s smiling throughout the whole thing make this a highlight in her short discography. Soon after, we have “Be Alright”, an immensely classy piece of tropical house which features Supremes-like harmonies on the chorus. When the subtle drop happens after “We’re gonna be alright!”, it genuinely feels like I am, in fact, going to be alright.
The guests were hit-or-miss on Grande’s previous effort, My Everything, but on Dangerous Woman, there is not a single guest appearance that I truly enjoy. The closest, surprisingly, is Lil Wayne, who is at least likable in his verse on the icy “Let Me Love You”. The great talents of Nicki Minaj and Future are wasted, and Macy Gray’s whiskey-soaked contralto is far too raspy and out-of-control for the track’s good. It’s really too bad that the album’s producers couldn’t get better/more appropriate/more engaged guests for the album; a sequel to the powerful Weeknd-featuring “Love Me Harder” was among my hopes for the record.
Nonetheless, we don’t listen to Ariana Grande albums for the guests, we listen for her voice, which is still the very best in pop music. Calling her a “talented vocalist” is a gross understatement. Grande is at once sweet and powerful, with ridiculous range and perfect pitch location. The album does a pretty good job of highlighting her vocal talents, especially on centerpiece “Greedy”, a Bruno Mars-core romp with loud, funky horns and swelling synthesizers that add up to a whole lot of fun. This is the only time on the album where Grande lives up to the Dangerous Woman tag, and it’s because she doesn’t say that she’s dangerous; she simply is. The record’s only real clunker is “Sometimes”, a cheesy campfire tune that belongs on a kids’ album. Thankfully, it’s followed up by “I Don’t Care”, a Donnie Trumpet-indebted R&B/soul slow-jam that doubles as a sly send-0ff to those who have criticized her over the years. It and “Moonlight” are great bookends to the record.
I tend to think that music evokes (and this is a huge generalization) three main emotions: elation (happiness, joy), despondence (sadness, introspection), and aggression (anger, flamboyance). Grande is exceptional at the first two, and her best songs either exhibit elation or despondence. Unfortunately, Dangerous Woman largely aims for the latter, leaving me grasping for something that brings me joy or makes me cry. The songs here don’t quite give me the emotional highs of “Piano” or the pained lows of “Why Try”, her two best songs. Even with the handful of good-to-great tracks here, I know that Grande is capable of so much more. Hopefully this is her wake-up call; so many other artists have done the “dangerous woman” schtick so much better. She’s got her own niche: her unwaveringly loyal fanbase. But for them, another album that’s simply “good” overall might not be enough.
shoutout to Cara ❤