Review: There’s a sizeable chance that when Rihanna giggled during Ariana Grande’s iHeartRadio performance this May, she did so without agenda. As Vine-friendly as the moment may have been, perhaps the chart veteran was simply struck by the similarities she shared with the pony-tailed ingénue making a serious play for the pop market before her. As Grande knocked out a rendition of her breakout hit “The Way” while wearing a black, long-sleeved jumper-dress, it seemed there was a fork in the road. The ex-Nickelodeon actress had been playing up her Lolita-like appeal since previewing an aborted cover for her debut that all but served her on a platter. If Grande was truly after a crack at superstardom, then that jumper-dress was coming off.
And off it came. Even less convincing than the Grande-does-Adele get-up was the vision of her gyrating awkwardly in a glitzy mini-dress and knee-length boots as the still-baffling excuse for a chorus of her summer smash “Problem” groaned on. From the most objective stand-point, there’s no denying that Grande lacks showmanship. But in its place she carries a sheen of stubborn professionalism, a trait previously glimpsed in a young Rihanna Fenty in 2007. Buoyed by only a barrage of hits, the faith of music execs, and a distinctive – if not exactly mammoth – talent, Rihanna was less of a Good Girl Gone Bad than a good investment returned as she gave charisma-free performances of unbelievably strong pop songs.
It’s now 2014, and Rihanna’s name has slowly come to mean something more than a signifier of a great tune. Whether or not Grande’s future output shrewdly moulds itself around a similarly compelling personal life is anyone’s guess, but there’s no doubt that we are witnessing a watershed moment in the 21-year-old’s career. My Everything has dreams of cohesiveness, being bookended by an intro and the title track, both featuring featherweight piano and string arrangements that pretend the Hot 100 pandering that occurs in the interim never happened.
But even on “Problem”, Grande is most notable for setting a fluttering higher register against not only Max Martin’s razor-edged horn loops and dry thumps, but also the posturing of Iggy Azalea’s guest verse. This lack of engagement could be her downfall in the long run, but there are spikes of genuine angst on “My Everything” and “One Last Time”, which, with its tear-stained tropical synths, is a sweetly bombastic re-write of Drake’s “Take Care”.
The album’s bountiful list of collaborators should throw up red flags, but an on-form Big Sean fits the chiming R&B ballad “Best Mistake” like a glove, while The Weeknd has fun as the R. Kelly to Grande’s Lady Gaga on the “Do What U Want”-aping Italo-disco stutter of “Love Me Harder”. “Break Your Heart Right Back” mixes a sunny Diana Ross sample with trap elements to create a hit so efficient that Grande and Childish Gambino seem equally at home on it, and although Zedd churns out a disappointingly stale EDM beat on “Break Free”, he in turn does his muse a massive favour; with no bells and whistles to contend with, Grande has rarely sounded like more of a star.
My Everything is unlikely to set the kind of trends that Rihanna’s ripening may have, but that voice – the range of which is best showcased on the Ryan Tedder ballad “Why Try”; with cotton-wrapped coos framing cloud-piercing trills – is reason enough to pay attention. This should only be the beginning; if this really is Grande’s “everything”, then it’s time she broadened her horizons.