Believe It Or Not, Ariana Grande’s Artist DNA Has Always Contained Hip-Hop

Folks say Ariana is ditching her pop roots for hip-hop, but clearly they haven’t seen the receipts.

While Ariana Grande’s pop persona and artistry have pretty much gone unscathed for much of her career, she—like many stars in the new landscape of hypebeast and “woke” culture—quickly became the center of controversy with the release of her single, “7 rings.” The track, which is the third pre-released single from her latest studio album, thank u, next, was criticized for boasting what many deemed an unconventional flow and composition. Specifically from the black community, concerns rang out about Grande borrowing styles and cadences from artists such as Soulja Boy (she adapted Soulja’s chorus from “Pretty Boy Swag”) and incorporating a rap verse over a trap-infused beat. It was suggested that Grande was pulling a “Miley Cyrus”—the good ol’, suck the fountain of hip-hop’s success dry and then spit it back out when you want to move on to something more “serious” or less dicey.

Princess Nokia hopped in the discussion, accusing Ari of appropriating black music – namely, her single “Mine” – and black culture. “Ain’t that the little song I made about brown women and their hair?” Nokia questioned in response to the “7 rings” release. “Sounds about white.”

Following Nokia’s outrage, an eruption of critics stormed the Twittersphere, claiming that like Bruno Mars, Ariana was abandoning her pop origins and transitioning into the “urban,” hip-hop world, where she would be able to benefit in relevance and revenue without actually contributing to the culture she was taking from.

While there is a real discussion to be had about the pristine pop artists who dip their toes into the urban community in hopes of securing a universal hit, that conversation should most definitely not begin with Ariana. Maybe you haven’t paid attention since Ari was a doe-eyed, faux redhead when she first got in the game, fresh off of her stint on Nickelodeon’s Victorious, but Ariana Grande has always been entangled in hip-hop and R&B.

So as you gather your opinions about the 25-year-old starlet, here’s a deep-dive into Ari’s discography that will demonstrate that hip-hop and “black” music is not just a trendy moment for her, but rather a crucial piece of her artistry’s DNA.

Yours Truly (2013)

Ariana’s debut studio album, Yours Truly, was the singer’s first real exploration into her sound as an artist. The album toyed with the retro, slick vibes of ‘90s R&B and the playfulness of ‘50s doo-wop music, which was largely dominated by artists like Frankie Lymon and The Teenagers.

The album noted influences are: Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey (if you didn’t mistake Ari for Mariah on “My Way,” you’re fooling yourself), Amy Winehouse, and Christina Aguilera.

Although the sound could be attributed to one’s personal ear or musical taste, it was largely cultivated by the long list of writers and producers who worked on the project. Babyface was credited as a co-writer and producer on five of the album’s 12 songs. He penned and engineered the project’s introductory track, “Honeymoon Avenue,” which opened with a symphony and unfolded into a mid-tempo, hip-hop beat.

The album’s lead single, “The Way” also gained national attention after entering the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 10. The single, which featured the late Mac Miller (pre-dating), was co-written by Sevyn Streeter, Jordin Sparks, Ari, and Mac, among others. The backing instrumental was based off jazz and soul singer-songwriter-keyboardist Brenda Russell’s 1979 song, “A Lil Bit of Love.” It also mimicked lyrics from Big Pun’s 1998 hit “Still Not a Player.” The song was played on rotation throughout hip-hop-oriented radio stations and as a result, Ariana was often regarded as Mariah Carey’s mini-me.

“The Way” wasn’t the only track on the record that sampled ‘90s hip-hop. “Lovin’ It,” co-written and produced by Babyface, also embodies segments of Mary J. Blige’s 1992 anthem “Real Love.”

Other notables creditors include Carmen Reece, who has written for the likes of Destiny’s Child, Jennifer Lopez, Harmony Samuels (who has shared co-writing credits on songs for Chris Brown, Brandy, Fantasia, Keyshia Cole, and Ne-Yo), as well as Patrick “j.que” Smith, who’s written for Beyonce, Avant, and more.

Yours Truly ultimately set the foundation for what would be regarded as Ariana’s signature style: a blissful blend of poppy tunes set by a footing of vintage R&B.

My Everything (2014)

Ari’s sophomore studio album continues the singer’s trend of blending pop and R&B. The record revisits the retro, ‘90s styles used on Yours Truly while adding in blends of EDM-influenced sonics and more piano-driven ballads. Again, the album calls on a number of chart-topping hip-hop artists like Big Sean, The Weeknd, Childish Gambino, and A$AP Ferg. While her selection of features could be argued as a typical ploy to gain urban radio spins, the hip-hop collaborations seemed to compliment Ariana’s already sultry vocals in a way that felt genuine.

It’s one thing to mimic from an underrepresented genre without surrounding yourself with collaborators who truly understand the culture. That doesn’t seem to be the case with My Everything, however, as it credits a handful of prominent songwriters and producers within the R&B community. “Break Your Heart Right Back” featuring Childish Gambino credits Nile Rodgers, Andrew “Pop” Wansel (Kanye West’s “To The World,” Tory Lanez’s “Say It”), and Bernard Edwards (who also penned Diana Ross’ 1980 disco classic, “I’m Coming Out”) as songwriters. Interestingly enough, Diddy, Ma$e, and Notorious B.I.G. also have writing credits on the song, thanks to an identifiable element of the song that mimics Big’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.”

Rodney Jerkins and KeY Wane are cited as major producers on the album. Wane produced Big Sean and Drake’s explosive break-up song “IDFWU” and Jazmine Sullivan’s “Insecure” before going on to work on Ariana’s opening record “Best Mistake.” Likewise, Jerkins produced Brandy and Monica’s 1998 hit “The Boy Is Mine” and Toni Braxton’s “He Wasn’t Man Enough” (1996), Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name” (1999) before going on to Ari’s “Hands on Me” single.

My Everything is a clear stepping stone up from Yours Truly. She eventually moved away from particularly nostalgic sounds of ‘50s rhythm and blues, with contemporary elements of the genre still prevalent in her later albums.

Dangerous Woman (2016)

Dangerous Woman, Grande’s third studio album, is the first time we see the pop diva venturing away from classic doo-wop tempos. Instead, she incorporates more bass-heavy beats, reggae influences, and vocal riffs and ad-libs, all of which would appeal to a more urban and current musical market. The album’s pre-released singles, “Dangerous Woman” and “Side to Side,” demonstrate her experimentation with different compositions and octaves. The former is a mid-tempo, R&B ballad that flexes her vocal range. “Side to Side” called on frequent collaborator Nicki Minaj to deliver on a reggae-pop, sex anthem. It was co-written by Ilya Salmanzadeh, who has also written for Jennifer Lopez.

In addition to Salmanzadeh, the project’s most notable contributors include Ariana’s best friend and singer-songwriter, Victoria McCants (professionally known as Victoria Monét). McCants penned “Let Me Love” alongside Lil Wayne, who is also featured on the track. The single also includes interpolations of Jeremih, Tunechi, and Natasha Mosley’s 2013 record, “All the Time.”

Dangerous Woman’s citations are not as chock-full with prominent hip-hop producers and writers as her first two projects. Even so, the album’s musical makeup undoubtedly incorporates a number of tracks that balance dance-pop with R&B.

Sweetener (2018)

While Sweetener doesn’t necessarily sound the same as My Everything, its composition returns back to Grande’s initial DNA, which is in part due to Pharrell Williams. Williams produced and co-wrote seven out of the 15 tracks on the project with a fairly noticeable inclusion of house, funk, and hip-hop production.

The singer’s inclination for R&B ballads as seen on Dangerous Woman, reappeared on Sweetener’s second single, “God Is A Woman.” The slow-burning track, written and produced by Salmanzadeh, is an effortless attempt at utilizing a rhythmic beat and seductive riffs with choral background vocals on a “trap-pop” track. Playing with contemporary R&B and introducing trap sounds would eventually become the formula for the rest of the album. Songs like “R.E.M.,” “Better Off” (produced by Hit-Boy”), and “Borderline” featuring Missy Elliott seem to demonstrate this. “R.E.M.” also uses the same sample as Beyonce’s unreleased demo track, “Wake Up” (Bey’s demo was quickly removed after leaking on Apple Music).

Sweetener starts to show Ariana's progression in her musical palette. Although she still blends her pop tunes with R&B and hip-hop, fans start to see her experiment with more modern trap sounds.

thank u, next (2019)

And now we have arrived at Ariana Grande’s latest music release and the heart of the controversy, thank u, next. Ariana has evolved her musical palette, but not diverted. The album incorporates much more contemporary elements. It continues to experiment with “trap-pop” as first seen on Sweetener. Some elements of her original artistry, such as tapping into ‘50s and ‘60s influences are still present, however.

The album, while much more contemporary and urban than her previous works, still invites back frequent collaborators, including Monét and Salmanzadeh, as well as new faces. Kandi Burruss, member of classic R&B girl group Xscape and co-songwriter of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” penned the record “break up with your boyfriend, i’m bored,” which uses trap, snare drums and broken verses. Priscilla Renea, who penned Rihanna’s “California King Bed,” also co-wrote “imagine,” which is assumed to discuss her past relationship with the late Mac Miller.

The intro to “fake smile” begins with a sample of Memphis soul singer Wendy Rene’s 1964 song “After Laughter (Come Tears).” It’s the same sample that was worked into Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 banger, “Tearz.” The song then unfolds into a beat reminiscent of Eve and Gwen Stefani’s early 2000s track, “Let Me Blow Ya Mind.”

Although various songs on thank u, next sound appropriated to the newfound listener, it is arguably Ari’s natural music evolution considering her past projects. To criticize the album or 2019 Grande because you don’t like artistic direction or sound is one thing. But blindly pointing the finger at her for drawing influences and sampling a genre she had always dabbled in, is a big reach.

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P Diddy promotes his new Diddy Dirty Money single 'Coming Home' and his headphones DiddyBeats at HMV, Oxford Street on January 20, 2011 in London, England.
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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.


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