Ariana Grande-Butera was born in Boca Raton, Florida, from an Italian-American heritage. She started her career in musicals and as an actor, appearing on the teen series Victorious. She transitioned into a recording career, releasing her debut album Yours Truly in 2013, at the age of 20.
Ariana Grande’s blessed with an amazing voice, simultaneously rich and coquettish, with a four-octave range. While divas of former generations displayed their vocal chops over slow, adult contemporary ballads, Grande occupies a sweet spot between pop and R&B, energetic and earthy. Her delivery is influenced by hip hop, and she’s the ideal pop star for a musical world in which hip hop is a dominant cultural force. Her tendency to slur words together just gives her voice more character.
I’d listen to Grande sing the phone book, and her records have been consistently entertaining. Over her career, her songs have become more interesting – from singing simple songs about love and infatuation to more personal subjects. Several traumatic events in her life have coloured her output; in 2017, 23 people were killed by a suicide bomber while leaving her concert at Manchester Arena, leaving her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In 2018, her former partner, rapper Mac Miller died of an overdose. Grande’s music has become more subdued and gained depth in response to these events.
Success has allowed Grande to become more independent and interesting, like using three minutes of footage of her pet pig frolicking on her bed for the music video of ‘Breathin’’, and breaking the usual album release cycle to release Thank U, Next only six months after Sweetener. It’s easy to be snobby and dismiss ultra-popular artists like Grande, but she’s matured into a terrific artist, and Dangerous Woman, Sweetener, and Thank U, Next are all excellent records.
Ariana Grande Album Reviews
Grande started work on her debut album back in 2010. She released the bubblegum pop single ‘Put Your Hearts Up’ in 2011, which she later disowned as “straight out of hell”. At one point, all but three songs were scrapped – the songs that were retained have a pronounced 1950s retro feel. 1990s R&B star Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds was a key collaborator on the reworked album.
When Grande’s debut eventually surfaced in 2013, it was a fun blend of the hip-hop inflected R&B and pop that Grande would later pursue and some throwback sounds. Songs like ‘Tattooed Heart’ and ‘Daydreamin” have a surprisingly large dollop of 1950s doo-wop, while there’s a debt to 1990s R&B. Apart from the clear influence of Mariah Carey, the duet ‘Almost Is Never Enough’ sounds like it’s straight from 1995 radio. Yours Truly is a grab-bag of radio friendly sounds, all tuneful, innocent and breezy.
The album’s first single ‘The Way’, with Mac Miller, is the type of hip hop crossover that Grande would perform regularly on future albums, but here it’s bouncy R&B without much edge. ‘Piano’ is even more effervescent, with Grande singing “I could write a song on my new piano/I could sing about how love is a losing battle.” The best material like ‘Lovin’ It’ and ‘Baby I’, are sophisticated, dropping hints of doo-wop and 1990s R&B along with a more modern sheen. Yours Truly ends limply – the duet with Nathan Sykes is a fun genre exercise, but it drags, while ‘Popular Song’ feels contrived in a way that most of these fun, effervescent songs don’t.
Grande’s work would become more interesting as it became more personal, but Yours Truly is a fun, tuneful debut.
Grande’s second album wisely doesn’t follow the template of her first. Its throwback teen-pop was charming, but repeating it would have pigeon-holed her. Instead, My Everything shoots for the pop mainstream. It loses much of Grande’s personality in the process – there’s not a lot of R&B in some of these tracks. My Everything is often a generic modern pop album that happens to feature a top-drawer vocalist. Even so, there’s less opportunity for Grande to stretch out as a vocalist, even though her powerful voice sounds great belting out straightforward pop tunes like ‘Break Free’ and ‘Break Free’.
My Everything is stacked with collaborators, many of whom sound incongruous on paper. Iggy Azalea only drops in for a brief verse on the saxophone infused ‘Problem’, while the collaboration with The Weeknd on ‘Love Me Harder’ creates the album’s best song. Both, along with the EDM anthem ‘Break Free’, bear the fingerprints of Swedish producer Max Martin, who’s done some terrific writing and production on Grande’s subsequent records.
My Everything has some good tunes, but it’s frustratingly generic.
There were some raunchy touches on Grande’s early material, but by and large she was on her way to becoming an American sweetheart figure, a cute girl with a big voice. This all changed in 2015 when Grande was caught on camera surreptitiously licking a donut and dissing America at a bakery – she was now a (slightly more) dangerous woman; perhaps Unhygienic Woman would have been a better title?
Dangerous Woman largely takes its cues from Yours Truly – the doo wop influence is back on the charming opener ‘Moonlight’, while most of the other songs have an R&B base. Grande’s much more involved in the writing this time, and Dangerous Woman has more of Grande’s personality on it. But the real strength of Dangerous Woman is the excellence of the material – so many great songs emerged in the sessions that some very good songs are relegated to bonus tracks.
It’s the up-tempo material that stands out on Dangerous Woman. ‘Into You’ is a textbook brilliant pop song, again from the Max Martin camp, and Grande’s exuberant scream leading into the final chorus is one of the best moments in her catalogue. Also from Martin, ‘Greedy’ skirts close to disco, punctuated by horns, and soaring. ‘Touch It’ was relegated to the bonus tracks, but it’s also excellent, quickly soaring from a gentle piano accompaniment to a full-blooded pop masterpiece.
The reggae groove of ‘Side to Side’ is undermined by Nicky Minaj’s verse, which ruins the song’s central conceit – a coarse, but understated joke – by removing all the snide subtlety and waxing lyrical about dick bicycles. The title track is also disappointing, an empowerment anthem that doesn’t quite ignite despite a strong vocal performance. But there’s a wealth of great material on Dangerous Woman, and it’s worth hunting down a version with bonus tracks for highlights like ‘Focus’, ‘Step On Up’, and the collaboration with composer Jason Robert Brown on ‘Jason’s Song (Gave It Away)’.
There’s a lot of great pop music on Dangerous Woman, the sound of a young pop starlet coming into her own.
Grande experienced tragedy in 2017 when, at the conclusion of a Manchester Arena show on the Dangerous Woman tour, 23 people were killed in a suicide bombing. Several songs on Sweetener are directly linked to events in Manchester and Grande’s subsequent struggles with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the gorgeous closer ‘Get Well Soon’ is a delicate ballad that represents Grande’s different voices in her head talking to her, while the outstanding singles ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ and ‘Breathin” also capture Grande’s difficulty in dealing with the aftermath.
Grande’s most significant collaborator on Sweetener is Pharrell Williams, whose low-key and slightly eccentric productions contrast with the epic productions from Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh. The diversity in intensity, along with the personal lyrics make Sweetener Grande’s strongest album yet.
The Martin and Ilya tracks are excellent. ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ is musically sophisticated, oscillating between reflection and optimism. ‘Breathin” soars, with Grande’s vocal prowess allowing her to effortlessly navigate the two-octave melody. ‘God Is A Woman’ fills a similar role to ‘Dangerous Woman’ on the previous record – the big, showstopping ballad early in the track-listing. But with a more dynamic arrangement, it’s much better at keeping the momentum of Sweetener rolling. ‘Everytime’ is a great deep cut too, tuneful and confessional – “I get drunk, pretend that I’m over it/Self-destruct, show up like an idiot”.
Even though the huge sounding Martin and Ilya tracks overshadow the rest of the record, the lower key pieces from Pharrell Williams and TB Hits are crucial to the album’s balance. Songs like the title track and ‘Blazed’ are low-key in a way that Grande’s previous albums never were and they’re more likeable for it, with Grande’s vocals impressively rich even when she’s not belting out bangers. ‘Get Well Soon’ is an excellent closer – the rich chord structure and vintage synthesizer sounds recalling mid-1970s Stevie Wonder.
It’s not as consistent as Dangerous Woman, but Sweetener is a big step forward from Grande – there’s a lot of emotional depth for a mainstream pop album.
Thank U, Next
In September 2018, Grande’s former partner Mac Miller died from a drug overdose. Grande felt unable to tour and instead channeled her emotions into a new album. Where Grande’s previous records were packed with guest stars; thank u next was recorded in a couple of weeks, and is low key and personal. A song named ‘Remember’ was cut when it was decided that it was too painful for Grande to release, but even without it, there’s the devastating ‘Ghostin’, which deals with the tension that Grande’s ongoing feelings after Miller’s death had on her engagement to comedian Pete Davidson.
‘Ghostin’ is the album’s standout track, a beautiful tune. Over a wheezy synthesizer backing, the perfect backdrop, Grande delivers heartfelt lines like “Though I wish he were here instead/Don’t want that living in your head/He just comes to visit me/When I’m dreaming every now and then.”
The album’s three best known songs occupy the last three places on the record – they famously made Grande the first act to equal The Beatles’ feat of monopolising the top three spaces on the US singles chart. The singles, however, aren’t among Grande’s work – the self-reflection on the title track is terrific, but ‘7 Rings’ and ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’ are song caricatures next to Grande’s best work.
Because the singles are pushed to the end of the record, the album tracks have plenty of chance to shine, and the standard’s high. ‘bloodline’ finds an infectious groove that’s halfway between reggae and pop. The low-key electric piano and elegant melody of ‘needy’ recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1970s prime, while also Grande sounds great on the stripped down moments of ‘imagine’.
Grande’s on a creative roll, and Thank U, Next is an outstanding record to release hard on the heels of Sweetener.
Grande was fascinating when her lyrics focused on PTSD around the Manchester bombing and her reaction to Mac Miller’s overdose. Lyrics aren’t always the focus in pop music, but the focus on serious subject matter made for interesting songs. On Positions, Grande’s third album in little over 24 months, she reverts to more traditional R&B subject matter, chronicling the lust of a new relationship on songs like ’34+35′ and ‘Nasty’. When presented with Disney-sounding strings for the former, she opted to make lyrics as jarringly yet awkwardly dirty as possible, with lines like “Just get me them babies” and “Even though I’m wifey, you can hit it like a side chick.” The lyrical preoccupations obviously recall Dangerous Woman, but musically Positions often resembles the 1990s R&B throwbacks of her debut.
The emotional punch of the past two previous records is still present – the duet with The Weeknd on ‘Off The Table’ is low-key, focused on the pair’s vocals. The quirky string arrangements of ‘My Hair’ and ‘Love Language’ are different from anything Grande’s done before, and there’s a lovely coda on the latter. There’s plenty of accomplished R&B/pop, like the title track and the closing ‘POV’.
Positions feels a little low key after a run of block-busting albums from Grande, but it’s still an enjoyable collection of songs with few obvious weak points.
Ten Best Ariana Grande Songs
No Tears Left To Cry
Thank U, Next
Get Well Soon
Back to 2010s Album Reviews….