In the past few months, female-driven pop has been on a winning streak. While there were a few duds (like Meghan Trainor’s dull sophomore record Thank You), 2016 has been graced with the presence of several pop gems from female artists. Australian songstress Sia continued her burgeoning notoriety with the powerful This is Acting while Gwen Stefani returned to the music scene with her impressive comeback This is What the Truth Feels Like. The two biggest surprises of this year in music came from Rihanna and Beyoncé, both of whom released records without much public warning: the jarringly inventive Anti and the politically conscious, deeply personal and all-around fantastic visual album Lemonade, respectively. That being said, there’s one artist who also seems to stand out from the pack: 22-year-old actress/singer Ariana Grande.
After her role as the naive redhead Cat on the kids show Victorious, Grande made her way toward the top of the music ranks with her sweet 2013 debut Yours Truly, subsequently establishing her place in pop with 2014’s stunning My Everything. Now, with her third record Dangerous Woman, Grande further sheds her innocent Nickelodeon child star image by evolving into a sophisticated, mature modern woman, ready to sink her teeth into newer, more daring material.
Like My Everything, Dangerous Woman explores female empowerment and unrequited love through glossy production, catchy lyrics and Grande’s signature glass-shattering vocals. But instead of simply rehashing My Everything’s boldness, Grande pushes Dangerous Woman to edgier thematic and musical territory, in which the singer boasts a more feminist message about how women who are deemed “dangerous” are unafraid to speak the truth, especially when it comes to power, independence and sexuality. This unapologetic energy, coupled with Grande’s glowing ambition, is what makes Dangerous Woman a thrilling example of the many directions pop music is taking in 2016.
The 11-song album, which includes four bonus tracks, experiments with different genres, such as R&B on the bouncy ‘90s throwback “Be Alright,” trap on the glittery, Future-featuring “Everyday” and reggae on the groovy, Nicki Minaj-assisted “Side to Side.” In addition to using beats from previous Grande collaborators Tommy Brown (“Honeymoon Avenue”), Ilya Salmanzadeh (“Problem”) and Kid Ink producer Twice as Nice, Dangerous Woman works well thanks to Swedish pop maestro Max Martin, who provides the album with his hit-making magic touch, both in its songwriting and sound. He layers Dangerous Woman’s instrumental skeleton with lush guitar riffs on the indelible title track, throbbing electro-heavy synths on the sultry club banger “Into You” and head-bopping horns on the record’s best song “Greedy.”
Though many songs off Dangerous Woman reach moments of profundity, there are some elements that bring them down a tad. The lullaby opener “Moonlight” (the alleged original title of the album) harkens back to Grande’s tween pop roots with its twinkly strings and breathy harmonies. But the track's romantic, gooey core gives it a sentimental, borderline-cheesy appeal. The gorgeous, low-key hip-hop jingle “Let Me Love You” opens with a devastating line about post-breakup anxiety (“I just broke up with my ex / Now that I’m single, I don’t really know what’s next”) and continues with a slow, sexy and stuttering rhythm, until the song halts when an unnecessary feature from Lil Wayne pops up. Penultimate song “Sometimes” is so-so in its execution, with its acoustic undertones giving the track a bland sound.
Fortunately, those are minor issues given Grande’s musical prowess. While My Everything touched on cutesy double entendres and subtle suggestive references, Grande is much more explicit about her sexual conquests and self-image on Dangerous Woman, even drawing some parallels to In The Zone-era Britney Spears. The title song can be interpreted as both a confident girl-power anthem and a song about pegging (“Taking control of this kind of moment / I'm locked and loaded / Completely focused, my mind is open”). On bonus track “Bad Decisions,” Grande asks cheekily, “Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?”
Dangerous Woman could have simply been churned from the standardized conveyor belt of pop as another formulaic album. Yet Grande understands very clearly how to structure her craft that heeds to her audience’s desires while maintaining her own artistic integrity. Each track feels wholesome and complete, not only because of the spectacular production or Grande’s formidable vocal range, but also because of the ideas conveyed in each song. It’s not necessarily a thought-provoking or compelling album, but Dangerous Woman showcases Grande’s ability to shape a listener’s understanding of the importance of a woman’s choice to sing, dance and speak without being undermined by critics and sexist trolls.