By Adam Theisen, Summer Senior Arts Editor
Published August 25, 2014
Following a slick intro whose layered-autotune vocals recall Bon Iver’s “Woods,” Ariana Grande’s new album launches right into the single you swore you never ever wanted to hear again, a track that’s been played so often on the radio that changing the station will usually only lead you to a different section of the song. Those sax notes announce the coronation of none other than 2014’s song of the summer. After it’s been drilled into your brain a million times, “Problem” ’s placement in the context of an album is somewhat refreshing, and it reminds you that this is actually a pretty good song. Yeah, there’s a certain vapidity to it, but it’s still the mind-bogglingly immortal Swedish producer Max Martin at his best. That subtle but effective synth-plus-bass beat and the trendy saxophone loop can even make you forgive Iggy Azalea’s presence.
But you probably formed your opinion on “Problem” a long time ago. It’s the rest of the album that you haven’t yet heard. My Everything is a record that knows it’s a blockbuster, and it boasts an all-star lineup of control-room collaborators to back that up. Just a glance at the credits tells you you’re about to hear the best that pop music has to offer: Ryan Tedder, Max Martin, David Guetta, Benny Blanco, Key Wane and Zedd, among many others, all had a hand in My Everything. While there are certainly some missteps throughout the album’s runtime, Top 40’s answer to The Avengers delivers some of the catchiest, fun music you’ll hear all year.
In that way, My Everything is like a modern update of an old Disco or Motown album, where a track’s success hinges as much on the producers and songwriters as it does on the artist. However, Grande’s astounding voice is still front-and-center, and this is undoubtedly the album that will make her an international superstar. While the aforementioned producers made the blueprints, it’s Ariana Grande’s power, talent and charisma that make My Everything sparkle and pulsate with energy.
For example, the Zedd-Martin collaboration and second single “Break Free,” potentially the best song on the album, features a very expensive-sounding, loud synthesizer-based instrumental track (as you would expect from Zedd). However, it’s Grande who brings the song’s real source of strength, roaring the chorus with an energy and authority that hasn’t been heard on the radio since “Since U Been Gone.”
Oddly enough, My Everything’s sound is very cohesive despite so many names having a hand in its production, with the exception of the completely out-of-place “Hands On Me,” which is unfortunately sandwiched between two piano ballads and features a shoehorned A$AP Ferg verse. Most of the songsmiths lay down pleasant-if-somewhat-bland electronic beats that are heavy on the bass, and then they get the heck out of the way while Grande does her thing. The Weeknd even shows up for a song without anything getting too weird for a family-friendly pop record.
Quick side note. If you are in the mood to buy the whole album, I’d actually recommend getting the deluxe edition: it sports the playful beat of “You Don’t Know Me,” the Nicki Minaj starpower of “Bang Bang” and the inexplicably-not-on-the-proper-album easygoing likability of “Only 1.”
However, the hit-to-miss ratio on the majority My Everything is just low enough that you might be better off just cherry-picking the best tracks. There’s one snoozer of a piano ballad (“Just a Little Bit of Your Heart”) and a few mid-tempo filler tracks that just wander for three minutes and are quickly forgotten.
Take out the duds, though, and you’re left with all the evidence you need that Ariana Grande will have a very bright career filled with hit songs and soldout arenas. While she has plenty of opportunities for her vocals to soar on choruses, she diversifies by navigating the understated verses of “Best Mistake.” Going back to last year’s “The Way” — a wonderfully catchy and fun song about young love that featured Mac Miller — Grande has shown great chemistry with rappers when they’re in PG mode, and Big Sean is actually a perfect fit for “Best Mistake.” A few songs later, Grande enjoys a revenge hookup with Childish Gambino on “Break Your Heart Right Back,” which employs a Diana Ross sample that makes for some very favorable comparisons. With her voice and her talent, maybe Ariana Grande could be a modern Diana Ross.
Encouragingly, the few songs where Grande does get songwriting credit are some of My Everything’s best, including “Break Your Heart Right Back” and the closer, “My Everything.” The title track seemingly starts as a cookie-cutter piano song, but is actually a fantastic ending to the album. The melody is extremely pretty and beautifully sung, while Grande’s overdubbed harmonies are perfect. It’s the sonic antithesis of “Break Free” ’s overwhelming power, but it’s just as great.
With “The Way” and her old Nickelodeon shows, the 21-year-old Grande has been famous for quite a while. But now her career begins in earnest. My Everything is extremely well-made pop created by seasoned veterans but centered around the commanding, magnetic abilities of Ariana Grande. Showing off not only her incredible voice but also her ability to sing with multiple emotions and tempos, Grande couldn’t have imagined a better way to announce her arrival on the A-List. While not quite transcendent enough to last past whenever the next huge pop album hits, My Everything is the perfect launching pad for a superstar, and it contains all of the starpower and fun that pop music can offer.