Likes: Dangerous Woman, Be Alright, Leave Me Lonely
Dislikes: Everyday, Bad Decisions
Overall: Especially generic music, silly lyrics and a childish basis ruin any possible bright spots
Record labels don't do their acts any favors by having them release albums annually, as they could suffer from fatigue (promotional/touring periods are physically and vocally grueling), overexposure, and not having any room to grow creatively. The young and green are hurt the most by this practice, and it's even more damaging with artist development being a thing of the past. Like a seed that's never watered (or even planted), they're left to be impotently stagnant, with only a suggestion of what they could be. As many of her contemporaries, Ariana Grande is a prime example of this. She had vocal dexterity and all the right influences and favorite artists (including Mariah Carey and Brandy), but she was prematurely placed center stage without the tools to cultivate her own identity, brand and trajectory above the minimum pop-starlet requirements (charting and sufficiently likable). It shows when you're thrown in a pool and asked to swim like Michael Phelps. She sold out Madison Square Garden before she learned to sing with zeal and conviction, have stage presence and assuredness, really nail an 8-count and formulate a cohesive "sound" (she waddles between throwback R&B and dance queen).To boot, her imaging was erratic and extreme, going from toddler-teen to sexed-up teen in the blink of an eye (not sure why "genteel young-adult" wasn't an option).
Grande sings with confidence and has more writing credits on her 3rd studio LP, Dangerous Woman, but her overreaching problems are just as appreciable. The patterned and non-proprietary way in which the material is drafted denotes it's all about meeting requisites; none of it seems to come from the heart. Many tracks have an effect-heavy, flat-line, characterless and repetitive production design (ex. "Touch It" and "Side to Side" with Nicki Minaj) that goes nowhere. Even when I was making a conscious effort to pay attention, I couldn't. I kept having to replay songs to remember how they sounded (has Max Martin lost his hand of Midas?). The vocal arrangements are predictable; you know what she's going to do before she does it. The lyrics? Lawd, have mercy....there is definitely a theme, but it's disappointingly jejune and callow. Ariana's definition of a "dangerous woman" is a woman who's lustful and chases after bad-boys *rolls eyes.* In March, she told Billboard the record's title was changed from Moonlight to Dangerous Woman because it was "a lot stronger" choice: "I want to be empowering my fans...To me, a dangerous woman is someone who’s not afraid to take a stand, be herself and to be honest." When the new name was first announced, she quoted feminist author Nawal El Saadawi on Instagram: "They said, 'You are a savage and dangerous woman.' I am speaking the truth, and the truth is savage and dangerous." Too bad the lyrics aren't about any of that. What stand is being taken? What savage truth are we tackling? That you're horny? Aren't we all sometimes? It's not like she discussed sex within the context of gender-politics. Using what's actually there, to spring-board from the title-track, Dangerous Woman could've been Crazy Beautiful or "Love the Way You Lie" in album form. Applying it more literally, a self-sabotage or femme-fatale concept would've been efficient. Since no one thought to drive down any of these honeymoon avenues, I'm left to assume the swap had to do more to do with a change in direction than anything else. Seeing as how the song "Moonlight" (also super bland, but pretty) doesn't match the others and "Focus" was dropped altogether, I'm thinking I'm right (plus, she all but confirmed it on Jimmy Kimmel's show).
Live at the Houston Rodeo: NRG Stadium
Show Date: March 17, 2015
Opening Act: N/A
There was a lot going against fairly new starlet Ariana Grande going into her 2015 Honeymoon Tour, particularly on its stop at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo (HLSR) in Texas. On her end, she had some major sprucing to do with her stage presence, choreography and vocal delivery (i.e. diction, emotionality, unique styling). In the television performances I've seen, she frequently appeared to look petrified and/or apathetic, and very "I'm more of a natural singer than a dancer" uncomfortable. This was patently noticeable anytime she did hit single "Bang Bang" live with Jessie J, whose presence and vocals are nothing short of ferocious and supersede hers. On the end of the HLSR, the turning stage is small in circumference and is in the middle of a dirt base in a round stadium. Acts are often driven out to the scaffold. This means no convenience for costume changes or room for elaborate sets. There's a video backdrop, but it doesn't help much because the way things are set up, no matter where you sit (unless it's directly in the middle section), your eyes will rely on the jumbo screens above for decent viewing. The final kicker is that the contracted time allotted is usually an hour, which is pretty aggravating when the cattle show beforehand runs 2 hours, starting at 6:45pm. I know, I know, it's a rodeo and animals/cowboys would naturally would be a focus, but I'd bet my right hand that most of those who purchase tickets have music primarily in mind. All of this into account, I didn't expect much but to enjoy hearing live versions of my favorite songs from Grande's 2 albums, Yours Truly & My Everything. However, the 21-year-old pleasantly surprised me.
Though several moves were repeated, Grande was at an improved ease with dance steps and was animated and bubbly, versus timid. She proved her chops weren't the concoct of studio magic, nailing all of her anticipated notes smoothly. The only time she seemed to be straining or overdoing it was when she was trying to spice up tracked choruses and fill in non-lyric gaps and rap verses with ad-libs. Impromptu ad-libs are an art form (that I swear Whitney Houston invented, though I know she didn't) Grande hasn't mastered yet. The fact there was a need to fill in and spice up brings me to one of the concert's pitfalls. Having an abundance of songs with rap features is the plight of the average commercial artist these days (it's not that I dislike rap; it's just every song doesn't need a rap). When on tour, this creates a problem because something has to go in that space. Over half of Grande's set-list included features; videos were shown of each rapper doing their lines, while Grande bopped around awkwardly waiting for her part to come back around. She could have done interesting sung renditions of the raps or harmonized delicately with them like her inspiration Mariah Carey does...or they could've just been deleted, with awesome instrumentation and dance breakdowns as a replacement (this would help with non-lyric moments too; can we say guitar solo?), but that would require a band. Pitfall #2 and another unfortunate, regular occurrence with today's performers is there was DJ instead of a band and background singers. This was likely the result of a limited budget, but I was teased with a couple of "live" tracks that left me wondering why every song wasn't done that way. DJs playing studio cuts, especially when they don't do any scratching, mixing or swerving tricks and the headliner isn't great at diverting from original vocal arrangements, turns a concert into an album listening party with no free food. Grande's DJ got plenty of spotlight, as she made unnecessary exits from the stage (again, no costume changes, so what was the point?) and struggled to figure out what to do or say during transitions and delays. The DJ was kind of cute, wore a nice suit and was sometimes a MC Hammer of sorts with the dancers, but despite his concerted efforts to be entertaining, he was just annoying. On a miniscule note, he kept calling her "A.G." Not only did it fail to sound cool or have a nice ring, but her fans don't call her that. "Ari" is a lot cuter. Sidebar: speaking of fans, I heard the most raucous during "The Way," "Problem" and "Break Free." I looked around and only saw a handful of people mouthing the words to every song. How was it I knew more of her material than those in her target market and wearing Grande paraphernalia? I hope her audience isn't that superficial overall. Sidebar over.
Apart from needlessly leaving the stage 2-3 times, not using the entire hour (I heard abbreviations of my jams "Lovin' It" and "Be My Baby" for what reason? Where was my other love, "Honeymoon Avenue" on the Honeymoon Tour?), a very anti-climatic opening (she just stepped on the platform and started singing) and stumbling through changeovers, Ariana Grande herself was fine. It was mostly the design of the show that kept it from being the best it could. Sure, there's still some tweaking to be done for Ms. Grande, but I'm confident she'll get there.
Likes: Best Mistake, Be My Baby, Break Your Heart Right Back
Dislikes: Break Free, Love Me Harder
Overall: Ariana doesn’t sound enthused, therefore it’s hard for the listener to be
Considering “My Everything” comes just 1 year (5 days short to be exact) after Ariana Grande’s debut, “Yours Truly,” I shouldn’t be surprised or annoyed that it has a lot of the same issues (with a few more added to the list), but alas, I am. It’s aggravating as hell that Grande doesn’t know what to do with her gorgeous chops. I’ve never heard someone sing with such a bewildering dearth of enthusiasm and personality. Her lethargy highlights the generics and weaknesses in the material, making the deciding difference from liking or loving the songs. It also keeps her from being distinct beyond mimicking Mariah Carey. Her marketing and creative direction teams clearly haven’t figured out who she is either, going from 0-100 with sexuality and slapping flavorless EDM (electronic dance music) on the record. Following “Yours Truly,” a frequent criticism was that Grande relied too heavily on throwback R&B samples for hits and was postured juvenilely, both musically and in image (ponytails and sweet 16 party dresses). So the answer was to turn to opposite extremes? Why avert from the 1 thing that could be Grande’s designation instead of tweaking the sound from throwback R&B-sampled to throwback R&B-inspired? Why go from fairly innocent to something like Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation” (“Love Me Harder”), when she can remain accessible to multiple age groups with a well-written, moderately-sensual love song (ex. Mariah Carey’s “Honey”)? The album’s tracklist is just as bi-polar. The intro is floating and dreamy, hinting at a romantic journey….then “Problem,” a song about getting the courage to dump a guy, comes on. It flip-flops in subject from there. With a little rearrangement, “My Everything” just might tell a story. Consistency was applied in an area that didn’t need it--stylistically, there’s an EDM trio (Grande’s voice is most bland on “Break Free”), trailed by an R&B trio, then ballads sandwiched between 1 of each genre. The deluxe edition has 3 extra tracks that help the album seem more complete. Curiously, the charting single “Bang Bang” with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj, is 1 of them. The premise of “You Don’t Know Me,” 1 of 2 songs co-penned by Grande, is amusing with lyrics like “If you want a perfect picture to believe in, then you can't be looking for me then… I know you don't like it…you don't know where I've been, it's my life…the girl you see in photographs is only a part of the one I am, don't judge me…,” as if she’s been around long enough and reached the megastar status to resent role-model expectations and fighting brutal scrutiny under the spotlight. Yes, she was on the Nickelodeon series Victorious for 3 years, but she wasn’t the main character or even the main character’s best friend. She was a lead on the spinoff “Sam & Cat,” but that lasted for only 1 season. Basically, she isn’t anywhere near having the Britney Spears experience right now. It’s not quite time for “Kill the Lights.” The title track isn’t worthy of being so; it’s kind of skip-able and weirdly the shortest cut besides the intro.
This record isn’t garbage, but my ears are bored and restless sitting in this environment of indifference in mainstream pop. It’s especially frustrating when all it takes is a few nips and tucks to push an album or song from, as I said earlier, “like” to “love.” This is a small detail, but even the cover artwork for both of Grande’s LP’s are similar! We’re not even putting effort into the artwork?! I understand that Republic Records wants to get it while it’s hot, but the plate’s going to cool off if you run around with it. If they’re going to make Grande release albums at a rapid pace, they need to at least make a few changes. Go from sampled to inspired, mature her gradually and help her improve her stage and studio presence. Give her Powerade, a Snickers or something. Since she’s one of the few newer artists with actual vocal ability, I’ll still hang on.
Likes: Honeymoon Avenue, Almost is Never Enough
Dislikes: Popular Song, Better Left Unsaid
Overall: Cute throwback pop/R&B; the lyrics and vocal are unimpressive, however
Nickelodeon star Ariana Grande gained what felt like overnight attention with YouTube videos showcasing her Mariah Carey-inspired chops just in time for Republic Records to push her debut album “Yours Truly.” Grande’s 1st single, “The Way,” fed off the catchiness of its sample, “Still Not a Player” by the late Big Pun (which is a sample itself), and combined with the viral attention, was a 1-2 punch of hype. Well, did she live up to it? Sort of. What I enjoyed about the record was that it took me back to the late 1990’s-early 2000’s pop/R&B that I miss so much and Grande’s voice is actually something I can take seriously. However, a few of the songs sound too much alike because they’re similar in build and I got annoyed with the sampling (“Yours Truly” includes throwback tracks from Lil Kim & Mary J. Blige, among others). Granted, your average hip-hop album is baptized in such, but the excerpts are usually manipulated in a distinct way that makes for a unique rendition and other elements, like lyricism, help the song standout on its own. On Grande’s album, the samples are only slightly tweaked and the lyrics are generally very simple and unaffecting. Therefore, I was left to wonder if I only liked songs such as “Lovin’ It” because of its reused music.
In terms of the vocals, I felt let down because there were more impressive moments on Grande’s Carey covers than on the album! What Grande offers is all very honeyed and sweet, but I was waiting for a stellar, breathtaking flash and it never came. One issue the 20-year-old has overall is that her conveyance is emotionless. She fails to sing with any feeling or grit, which may be because she’s still at a stage as a new act where she’s focused on reaching the vocal standard of her idols (in this case, Mariah Carey). “Almost is Never Enough,” featuring Nathan Sykes, packs the most lyrical and emotional punch. By and large, I think Ariana Grande is working with something, and once she concentrates on finding her own voice and forming an identifiable sound, she’ll be good to go. Image-wise, it’s agitating that she’s being marketed as a teenager (as if the public can’t internet search her age) when she’s almost old enough to be graduating from college. Her signature ponytail in soft-curls and sweet-16 party dresses were topped off with some of the juvenile content of the album. The most high-school friendly was “Popular” featuring Mika. Who does Republic think they’re fooling?
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