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Ariana Grande, The Diva In Training Wheels

Earlier this year, after some minor shade, pop starlet Ariana Grande felt the need to publicly address the real issues: the reason she always wears her hair in a high ponytail or half-pony. “I had to bleach my hair and dye it red every other week for the first four years of playing Cat,” Grande wrote on her Facebook, referring to her character on two different (now-canceled Nickelodeon series), Victorious and Sam & Cat. “As one would assume, that completely destroyed my hair… my real hair is back to brown and I wear extensions, but I wear it in a ponytail because my actual hair is so broken that it looks absolutely ratchet and absurd when I let it down… So PLEASE gimme a break about the hair (or just don’t look at me lol). IT’S JUST HAIR AFTER ALL.”

Needless to say, Grande is not aiming for Beyoncé levels of pop perfection quite yet. But for a 21-year-old breaking free from the scourge of “kids’ entertainment,” I appreciated the transparent sass and sensitivity as a “just Ari being Ari” moment, with a dash of “LEAVE BRITNEY ALONE” thrown in. I laughed and, as condescending as this may sound, wanted to hug Grande. Relatability is a pillar of pop hits, but not so much its female stars, with the exception of Taylor Swift. To be a diva — the female version of a hust-a-ler — is, on an inherent level, to be above mere mortals. Although Grande’s vocals are more deserving of diva status than nearly all of her peers, she’s not quite worthy of the title yet. Her sophomore album released this week, My Everything, puts up a good fight, but the world is still wondering: who exactly is this tame, tiny girl with the big voice and a near-endless supply of circle skirts?

I would not suggest looking for the answer in My Everything. In terms of musical ingenuity, it’s a stronger effort than 2013’s Yours Truly, but listeners familiar with Grande’s debut may walk away from the new album thinking they knew who she was — a ’90s R&B-pop revivalist — and now realizing they know nothing at all. Likely feeling pressure from the Major Label Pop Machine, Grande stacked the album with something for everyone, with varying levels of believability. She recruits sidekicks — Iggy Azalea, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, even Vice-cool Norwegian DJ Cashmere Cat, who assists on the album’s best song, the Ghost Town DJ’s-esque “Be My Baby” — to help her pull this off, matching their moods in ways I should have expected from a people-pleasing child star. It’s these collaborations that shine the brightest, though they say the least about what kind of an artist Ariana Grande is or wants to be.

For all her talk of would-be and what-was romances, sexual longing is portrayed in a subtle way in Grande’s world. On this grab-bag of pop trends, overt sexuality is perhaps the one trend Grande is allowed to actively buck. Instead, her male collaborators speak suggestively towards a mostly coy Grande. Her most forward moment is also her worst: “Hands on Me” is a big-booty club banger that A$AP Ferg aids in making more tragically terrible than a Stripped outtake.

Mid-tempo Big Sean duet “Best Mistake,” one of three My Everything songs co-written by Grande, is the strongest integration of a collaborator into Ari’s world. You can perhaps chalk up the strength of the hip-pop ballad about defining the relationship to Grande’s rumored relationship with Sean — you know what they say about life imitating art — but it’s clear there’s a stylistic give-and-take here that really works.

“Break Free,” her neon fist-pump of a collaboration with Zedd, kicks off a particularly strong five-song run, giving the record an infusion of jubilance. But perhaps what’s most clever aspect here is where Grande, seemingly faking it ’til she makes it, declares in the chorus, “This is the part where I break free.” The difference between knowing what you should do and being strong enough to follow through is the key trick here on My Everything. 

When left to her own devices, Grande favors lovesick quasi-ballads — the big, wistful things that you’d expect to show off her vocals the best. Some of them, like the album’s stunning title track, become chill-inducing monoliths of regret with little more than a piano and Grande harmonizing with herself. It’s more Adele than Mariah (Grande’s most frequent comparison), but there’s also a sense of hiding them in a corner instead of letting them define Grande. (What, is Lana Del Rey the only pop singer who’s allowed to be openly forlorn in 2014?) Divas do themselves 100 percent — that’s part of how they earn the title. Until her personality on tape matches her powerhouse vocals, Grande will remain a diva in training.

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