When Ariana Grande presented Saturday Night Live in March, she dedicated part of her opening monologue to a fun, jazzy number entitled ‘What Will My Scandal Be?’. Hazards that have befallen various child stars over the years were listed off with a wink and smile. All very upbeat and entertaining, but the song tapped into the very real unease that sits with Grande on Dangerous Woman.
Although she has a few major hits under her belt, there is still some mystery about who she is beyond the blockbuster voice and patented high ponytail, and there has been a very conscious effort to age-up her image in order to fill in the gaps.
Her cameo as ‘Woman in bondage outfit’ in the Zoolander sequel; the co-signs from vampish camp’s twin doyens, Ryan Murphy and RuPaul; the latex bunny costume she wears on this album’s cover. All moves made to reframe Grande in the public consciousness and ease this difficult, delicate transition.
The Ariana Grande of Dangerous Woman is keenly aware of her place in pop’s no man’s land, the awkward midpoint between throwing out zany non-sequiturs on Nickelodeon and the superstardom she probably deserves. As such, the album is not a classic bildungsroman but takes in a broad survey of styles and collaborators, desperately trying to fashion an identity more flattering than that of B-list doughnut licker.
The title alone is as transparent an attempt at self-actualisation as you are likely to see. Even so, Grande seems reticent and holds adulthood at a slight reserve, like she’d still prefer to play dress up. At first glance, ‘Moonlight’ makes for a jarring opener. Plinking pianos, lush strings and bashful references to Elvis and James Dean see Grande playfully reject the ‘good girl gone bad’ narrative she has fashioned for herself. It’s a positively virginal piece of music – a throwback to all-American 50s doo wop completely at odds with what follows.
‘Moonlight’ is a facsimile of early teen pop, but Grande’s version of womanhood is no more lifelike or multi-faceted. Sex is equated with maturity all too often, and the album’s various bad boyfriends are catalytic to her evolution. Grande, it seems, is not a dangerous woman but will wear danger in certain company.
She may start by wishing some dreamboat would be all hers, but she spends much of the ensuing 14 tracks in thrall of the transformative effect her man’s good sex has on her. The title track is a perfect example: at its outset, Grande resolves to “push her limits” and says she doesn’t need permission to do so, but empowering good intentions soon make way when she brushes up against her partner.
She (and her staggering voice) are unleashed when she sings “Something ‘bout you makes me feel like a dangerous woman”. As Quinn Moreland pointed out in her review for Pitchfork, ‘danger’ and ‘dangerous’ are mentioned 19 times on Dangerous Woman, and that meme has several variations too: scandal, recklessness, bad decision-making, deals with the devil, etc. – all terms that separate Grande from her actions but still allow her to overcome her natural restraint.
Now, does that diminish these songs? Not at all, but it does undermine the work being done to present Grande as a star with whom we can relate, upon whom we can project meaning, and not just someone we can admire for her technical virtuosity. That work also includes guest verses from Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and Future, none of which really stand out. Future’s giddiness cuts through the auto-tune as he sizes Ariana up on ‘Everyday’. Nicki sounds disengaged, likes she’s doing a favour for her ‘Bang Bang’ co-star on ‘Side to Side’, but leave it to Lil Wayne to really phone it in.
‘Let Me Love You’ is an addictive piece of casting couch trip-hop in the vein of the early Weeknd mixtapes, but aside from a couple of choice lines, Weezy picks up his fee with some unconvincing pillowtalk and makes certain not to miss the opportunity to call his penis “grande” while saying “goodbye to the good girl”.
At 15 tracks and between reggae (‘Side to Side’), big-band funk (‘Greedy’), string-laden torch songs (‘Leave Me Lonely’) and ubiquitous IKEA pop, Dangerous Woman is overlong and scattered, but its backend, featuring ‘Sometimes’, ‘Bad Decisions’, ‘Touch It’ and ‘Knew Better/Forever Boy’ is uniformly strong, and the peaks are incredible. ‘Dangerous Woman’ is an agonising slow-burner that slinks up to the precipice of a grandstanding chorus, which it delivers with hot guitar licks and Bond theme horns. Lyrical misgivings aside, it’s sultry and sexy in all the intended ways.
‘Into You’ could be the Song Of The Summer™ and shows Grande can work well as an (important) cog in Max Martin’s glittering machine. In a zero-sum game such as contemporary pop music where the super producers share the wealth among a select few, Grande has done extremely well to secure a song such as this. It could have been left in the hands of Taylor Swift, Rihanna, Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga or any of Grande’s ostensible rivals and still be a huge hit, but Grande’s vocal dexterity is an asset that doesn’t go unappreciated.
The song builds from an infectious grind into a shimmering procession of Hollywood synths, handclaps and background coos. It’s is an immaculate construction, a bulletproof banger that throbs with intrigue and excitement at every turn. And when it comes to life, it feels like an ultralight beam is being fired into a house of mirrors – the results wonderful and blinding.
It may only be topped by ‘Thinking Bout You’, a natural, sky-scraping closer. Grande plays along on ‘Into You’, but she takes centre stage here. It’s vulnerable and rife with longing, but the sampler pads and percussion provide a warm, supportive backdrop against which Grande’s multiple vocal tracks can entwine and flourish.
Grande draws such focus that you may not notice that backdrop becoming an enveloping, cacophonous palace of cantering synths and driving percussion. The song’s disparate elements are united in a joyous gallop, culminating in a gorgeous vocal run from Grande that sets off a tumbling avalanche. It’s a seismic, breathy whisper that brings the whole thing crashing down on itself, only for the song to roar back to life stronger than ever. The last 80 seconds of ‘Thinking Bout You’ are perfection.
If anything, Dangerous Woman is hampered by Grande insistence on depicting herself as such. Her self-consciousness can be suffocating, but this portrait of a pop queen as a young woman is probably more revealing for its surprising detours and narrow definitions of psychological and emotional maturity. There are true diamonds to be found amid the rough and a very solid album too.