Somewhere between a boombox-touting Taylor Swift and a gyrating Miley Cyrus stands the petite powerhouse Ariana Grande. As one of pop music’s less controversial magnets (unless you count being the possible rebound for rapper Big Sean), Grande’s talent remains more predictable than undeniable. For her second effort, My Everything (Republic Records), she serves up her signature breathy vocal work and whistle-register pitch while seamlessly swerving on tempos in both the pop and R&B lanes. Still, it’s nothing we haven’t heard before.
Like her 2012 debut Yours Truly, the cameos are piled on, complementing rather than intruding on her spotlight, in most cases. Explicit crooner The Weeknd keeps it surprisingly PG-13 (the most risqué line: “When I get you moaning, you know it’s real/Can you feel the pressure between your hips?”) on the I-see-what-you-did-there track “Love Me Harder.” A$AP Ferg makes it a party for two on “Hands On Me,” the cutesy, 2014 version of Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body.” Childish Gambino creeps on the Donna Summer-sampled “Break Your Heart Right Back” while Big Sean clocks in for "Best Mistake," his second collaboration with his maybe-new boo. The girl power spirit circa Spice Girls oozes from “Bang Bang” co-starring Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. Even the Zedd-assisted “Break Free” is tolerable for anti-EDM ears.
After several rounds of My Everything, the Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera comparisons are hard to shake off. Any songstress who can successfully switch from sentimental ballad to dance-floor track to pop chart-topper (without Auto-Tune!) will be placed alongside the vocal greats. The sass and finger-wagging feels are even nostalgic of Mimi’s 2002 effort Charmbracelet, which was home to the oft-forgotten Jay Z and Freeway collabo “You Got Me.” It’s hair-twirling music for high school sweethearts and puppy lovers with a dash of emo, an age-appropriate medley for the 21-year-old chanteuse.
The only thing missing: a stellar pen game. Unlike her more adult contemporaries, Grande is singing the same highs and lows we heard last go-round without a definitive sign of personal growth: trying to resist a pesky lover (“Problem”), the aftermath of a breakup (“Best Mistake” and “My Everything”) and the disbelief of a too-good-to-be-true relationship (“Only 1”). The only detour from her adorableness is “You Don’t Know Me,” a sugarcoated #DontJudgeMe to those quick to make labels. There are no surprises when it comes to Grande’s range or choice of content, which isn’t a bad thing per se. But soon, eyelash batting won’t be enough to score a home run. Right now, Grande is everything pop craves—an innocent face and natural talent with pipes perfect for both a Pepsi campaign and a mom’s SUV. But one has to wonder what happens when her hair hangs loose and the adolescent appeal disappears. Will she still be as big as her name?—Adelle Platon (@adelleplaton)