In 2014, Grande released what was arguably the best pop song of that year, Love Me Harder’, a pulsing, sexed-up duet with The Weeknd. That sound was then evident quite clearly in his most recent album Beauty Behind The Madness, and Grande continued to work with some interesting artists – Major Lazer, Cashmere Cat – in the lead up to this album. Then she released Focus’ as the first single, a watered down ‘Problem’ 2.0, and the total lack of interest sent her (read: her record label) back to the drawing board.
What they found there didn’t stray too far from what worked for The Weeknd: Max Martin. The super-producer is on board six of the fifteen tracks, but his recent foray into ‘menacing pop’ can be found pretty much entirely throughout. While the rebooted first single ‘Dangerous Woman’ is a guitar-led, slinky-slice that sounds like it should be on a 50 Shades Of Grey soundtrack, its follow up ‘Into You’ is much closer to the true DNA of the album, a pounding electro-pop banger that calls to mind Martin’s work with Adam Lambert, specifically the very underappreciated ‘Ghost Town’.
‘Touch It’ and Lil’ Wayne collab ‘Let Me Love You’ follow suit, and it’s during these moments – when Grande goes Mariah meets Goldfrapp – that she becomes perilously close to being the best, most interesting pop star we have right now. Even when she appears to lighten up the party slightly, like on the Nicki Minaj-assisted tropical vibe ‘Side To Side’, the jazzy ‘Greedy’, the hip-hop tinged ‘Bad Decisions’ or the ’90s house infused ‘Be Alright’, she’s still pulling sex up from the gutter in pretty much every belted out syllable.
Of course, those Mariah comparisons mean that Grande can’t help but through in a few ballads too, but smartly keeps them to a minimum, and ensures that they don’t bring the entire party to a stop. ‘Moonlight’ opens the album with a slowed-down doo-wop vibe, ‘I Don’t Care’ floats along on a lush Babyface-esque production, while the two closing tracks ‘Know Better/Forever Boy’ and ‘Thinking About You’ combine airy production and pounding drums to help build to a fantastic finale.
Somewhere in the middle of the set-list, things do go a little awry: Macy Gray channels Eartha Kitt on the chorus of ‘Leave Me Lonely’ to interesting but not entirely successful effect, ‘Everyday’ sounds like a Rihanna reject complete with a forgettable verse by Future, while ‘Sometimes’ is built around an irritating Jason Mraz-y refrain that makes it instantly skippable.
Despite these missteps, it’s difficult to imagine a better pop album than Dangerous Woman to be released in 2016. It doesn’t feature the fancy overarching plot of Lemonade (most of the songs are either about a boy she likes, or a boy she used to like but doesn’t like anymore), or the cutting edge (read: sometimes unpalatable) production of ANTI, but for the most part is a perfect representation of what pop music is today. Sexy, catchy, a little bit naughty, a little bit fun, some of the best vocal work of any artist today, with the best writers and producers that money can buy. Yes, it’s a little bit hollow, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need to have a good time.