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.
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.