Dangerous Or Not, Ariana Grande Is Very Good At Being A Pop Star
Is Ariana Grande dangerous? Her forthcoming album is called Dangerous Woman, but assuming you’re not a donut, what kind of threat does the pop singer pose?
Consider the question of cultural clout. Grande has plenty of quirks — just ask Satan! — but compared to monoliths like Beyoncé or Rihanna or Taylor Swift or even (the admittedly far less popular) Grimes, she’s not exactly a cult of personality. She does not appear to be leading a movement or trusted as the voice of a generation. Her records and public persona have been stridently apolitical thus far (“hating America” for our eating habits doesn’t count), and she’s not known as a musical trailblazer or tastemaker. You’re more likely to detect other artists’ influence on Grande, particularly that of Mariah Carey and Britney Spears, than Grande’s influence on other artists. So if we’re talking about music’s power to change the world, or even a pop singer’s power to change music, she’s been a relative non-factor.
Nor does the fate of the industry rest on Grande. Since she made the leap from children’s cable TV to the grown-up pop arena, Republic Records has counted on her to score big hits and move a lot of units. And although she achieved both feats plus critical acclaim with 2014’s excellent My Everything — which debuted at #1, generated three top-10 singles, and cracked Pitchfork’s best albums list — she is not approaching Adele’s album sales, or racking up #1 singles at a Katy Perry clip, or even eliciting a chorus of critical hosannas on par with the above-mentioned yas-queens. And whereas many stars are dropping surprise albums, Grande is going with a traditional album rollout. Far from a “disruptor,” she seems to be playing by the rules.
As for more conventional definitions of danger, well, Grande has always seemed especially innocuous from that perspective. Thanks to her youthful visage and fondness for wearing cat or rabbit ears, it’s easy to forget she’s a 22-year-old adult in full control of her powers and not still a teenage Nickelodeon star in need of a legal guardian. So when she sang the sex-themed duet “Love Me Harder” with noted lothario the Weeknd, the aesthetic clash was a little bit creepy. And when she gunned down aliens with a laser pistol in her “Break Free” video, the effect was campy compared to Rihanna shooting a man in cold blood or Lana Del Rey launching a rocket at the paparazzi. Even Swift’s silly superhero blockbuster “Bad Blood” was badass by comparison.
It’s possible to lose sight of Grande amidst music’s constellation of superstars, especially when many of her peers have been a presence in pop culture for a decade or more. So maybe the danger in this case is forgetting about her or writing her off. Because while Grande may not be rewriting the record books or the pop-star playbook, she’s extremely good at her job.
Her singing voice is incredible (so long as you don’t mind losing a consonant here or there). She can dance. She’s got jams upon jams — more on that shortly. She’s funny: Note her killer SNL hosting gig or multiple cute bits with Jimmy Fallon. She is pleasingly bizarre, what with her frequent talk of demons and her own potential supervillainy. And, I mean, she had the good sense to break up with Big Sean. Honestly, what’s not to like?
And anyhow, pop stars play around with identity all the time. It’s one of the foundational principles of the job as defined by David Bowie, Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince among others, the ability to continually reinvent yourself or take a detour into an alternate persona for a while. Remember all the thinkpieces about Rick Ross and Lana Del Rey and Bob Dylan and embodying a character? Remember Sasha Fierce? Whether Grande wants to recast herself as a dark, mysterious figure going forward or just cosplay as a such a character for one album cycle, what’s important is whether the gambit pays off in compelling entertainment. This is show business, after all, and the singles leading up to this album have been a hell of a show.
As it happens, per the title track’s lyrics, Grande only feels like a “Dangerous Woman.” It’s a song about the way passionate lust can transform you from the inside out, sung from the perspective of a previously reserved protagonist exploring new realms of intrigue. Like Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better,” “Dangerous Woman” is a minor-key pop-R&B jam laced with steamy ’80s electric guitar, and like “Kiss It Better,” it rules. Grande may not be believable as a woman who lives on the edge, but she totally sells the role of a mild-mannered lady on the edge of unleashing the danger within.
That perspective has popped up again throughout the other advance singles. The exultant nursery-rhyme deep house banger “Be Alright” aside, Grande has continued to sing from the perspective of a woman possessed by an irresistible attraction. There is the creeping R&B track “Let Me Love You,” a Lil Wayne duet that finds Grande cooing over a dark chord progression and a sparse hip-hop backbeat, capped off by a chorus that chops her voice into skipping digital melisma. In contrast to the Abel Tesfaye duet, she sounds right at home alongside noted horndog Weezy F. Baby. This could pass for one of the many R&B duets from Wayne’s radio heyday, but I haven’t been so impressed by one of those since Kelly Rowland’s “Motivation.”
And then there’s the club burner “Into You,” an absolute showstopper and arguably the best song Grande has ever recorded — even better than “Problem,” my favorite pop song of 2014. Against a backdrop of burbling synths and finger snaps, she near-whispers, “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe/ And all I wanna do is to fall in deep.” From there the beat builds up into skronking low-end detonations and a pulse-pounding thump, Grande demanding “A little less conversation, a little more touch my body.” It expertly captures that sensation of letting down your guard and giving into the moment, and it suggests Grande may be able to pull this “a little bit dangerous” thing off after all.
It’s a huge week for Drake. Not only does Views debut at #1 on the Billboard 200 album chart by an impressive margin, the WizKid and Kyla collaboration “One Dance” becomes Drake’s first #1 single as a lead artist, and he sets the record for most simultaneous Hot 100 singles, landing 20 tracks on the chart all at once. Let’s work our way through his accomplishments, which must certainly have him drinking every night:
•Views sold 852,000 copies and recorded 1.04 million equivalent units, making it Drake’s best first-week seller and sixth consecutive #1 debut (preceded by his three prior albums Thank Me Later, Take Care, Nothing Was The Same, plus his pair of 2015 “mixtapes” If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and the Future collaboration What A Time To Be Alive). Billboard reports that Views also boasts the best first-week sales of any album this year and the best first-week sales for a male solo artist since Justin Timberlake’s first 20/20 Experience installment did 968,000 in 2013. Apple Music also reports that songs from Views were streamed 245.1 million times in its first week, more than doubling Beyoncé’s record 115.2 million plays for Lemonade.
Speaking of Lemonade, it would have easily held onto #1 this week had Drake not entered the arena. It’s a strong #2 to the tune of 321,000 units and 196,000 in pure sales. Prince’s Purple Rain holds at #3 with 75,000 units, followed by The Very Best Of Prince at #4 with 70,000 units. After Rihanna’s Anti at #5 come the week’s other two top-10 debuts: Rob Zombie’s Electric Warlock Acid Witch Satanic Orgy Celebration Dispenser at #6 with 41,000 units and Now 58 at #7 with 37,000 units. Sales powerhouses Chris Stapleton, Justin Bieber, and Adele continue to linger at the bottom of the top 10 with albums that have been out for months and months.
•It’s crazy to me that of all Drake’s hits, “One Dance” is the one that becomes his first proper #1 hit this week. (He’s technically scored two prior #1 as a featured artist on Rihanna’s “What’s My Name” and “Work.”) After all, the two hits that he sent to #2, 2009’s “Best I Ever Had” and 2015’s “Hotline Bling,” were inescapable cultural monoliths. Granted, I work at home and have been spending a lot more time with a 10-month-old baby than at the club lately, but “One Dance” just doesn’t seem like the same level of hit to me. (FWIW, “Hotline Bling” almost certainly would have gone to #1 had Apple Music reported its first-week video streams.)
Nonetheless, the extremely likable “One Dance” is the one that pulls off the coup, ascending past Desiigner’s “Panda” to rule the Hot 100 this week. (It’s also WizKid and Kyla’s first #1 hit, duh.) Maybe it has something to do with our collective Canadian reggae fixation:
"Informer," "Rude," "Sorry," and now "One Dance"… America loves seeing Canadian reggae songs at #1
— James Popcaan (@alshipley) May 9, 2016
Other notable upper-echelon chart movement: Mike Posner’s “I Took A Pill In Ibiza” climbs to a new peak of #4, while Fifth Harmony and Ty Dolla $ign’s “Work From Home” ascends to a new peak of #5; surprisingly, Billboard notes that the latter is the first top-5 hit by an all-female group since the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice” went to #4 in 2007! The Chainsmokers and Daya’s “Don’t Let Me Down” rises to #7, becoming the second top-10 hit for the DJ duo and the first for the upstart singer. And Calvin Harris and Rihanna’s “This Is What You Came For” debuts at #9. It’s Rih’s 28th top-10 single, tying Stevie Nicks for the fourth-most all-time.
•Drake also breaks the record for most simultaneous Hot 100 hits. Justin Bieber landed a record 17 tracks in the top 100 last fall upon the release of Purpose, breaking a record the Beatles had held since charting 14 simultaneous singles in 1964. But Drake secured a full 20 percent of the top 100, charting with 18 out of 20 Views tracks plus Rihanna’s “Work” and his own loosie “Summer Sixteen.” The only Views tracks that didn’t chart are “Summers Over Interlude” and the bonus track “Hotline Bling,” the latter of which obviously already had quite the chart run. Billboard made a handy list of Drake’s 20 Hot 100 singles:
No. 1, “One Dance,” feat. WizKid & Kyla (up from No. 2)
No. 6, “Work,” Rihanna feat. Drake (holds at No. 6)
No. 21, “Pop Style,” feat. The Throne (up from No. 40)
No. 33, “Hype” (NEW)
No. 34, “Controlla” (NEW)
No. 38, “Grammys,” feat. Future (NEW)
No. 40, “Still Here” (NEW)
No. 44, “U With Me?” (NEW)
No. 45, “9” (NEW)
No. 47, “With You,” feat. PARTYNEXTDOOR (NEW)
No. 49, “Childs Play” (NEW)
No. 52, “Too Good,” feat. Rihanna (NEW)
No. 53, “Feel No Ways” (NEW)
No. 54, “Weston Road Flows” (NEW)
No. 61, “Redemption” (NEW)
No. 68, “Keep the Family Close” (NEW)
No. 72, “Faithful,” feat. Pimp C & dvsn (NEW)
No. 75, “Fire & Desire” (NEW)
No. 86, “Views” (NEW)
No. 89, “Summer Sixteen” (down from No. 73)
Congrats, Aubrey Graham! Your album may have been sonically conservative, claustrophobically self-obsessed, and at least 25 percent too long, but the strategy is certainly working for you in the short term.
Justin Timberlake – “Can’t Stop The Feeling”
Max Martin has done it again. I miss the days when Timberlake was on pop’s cutting edge, but this is very good for a risk-averse soundtrack single.
Blake Shelton & Gwen Stefani – “Go Ahead And Break My Heart”
It was only a matter of time before Stefani did a duet with her new man, but I honestly figured they’d meet in the middle, style-wise. Instead, we get a straight-up commercial country track, and a decent one at that. Is Gwen gonna make the leap into country? I can think of melanin-related reasons why she’d have better luck than Beyoncé.
Fifth Harmony – “Write On Me”
Holy shit, give me this Fifth Harmony album right now. “Write On Me” rides a tender chord progression and a sweeping synth undercurrent all the way to another winner.
Zayn – “Like I Would”
I’ve always felt like this song was missing something, and that something turned out to be TRON-themed music video.
Dua Lipa – “Hotter Than Hell”
I am all aboard the Dua Lipa train. Pop needed an alto like this one.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Justin Bieber pushed Desiigner when the rapper got a little too hyped at his show and stepped on Bieb’s feet. [TMZ]
- Bieber also got a small cross tattooed on his face. [E!]
- Kesha is going on tour with Diplo’s Mad Decent Block Party. [Twitter]
- More Kesha: She delivered an emotional rendition of Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens To You” at the Humane Society Gala in LA. [YouTube]
- Miley Cyrus was criticized for working with Woody Allen in a widely-shared essay by the director’s son Ronan Farrow. [THR]
- Cyrus is also rumored to be pregnant. [Life & Style]
- Taylor Swift was the highest paid musician of 2015. [Billboard]
- An “emotionally disturbed” man with a duffel bag was arrested outside Taylor Swift’s NYC apartment. [TMZ]
- Selena Gomez debuted a new song, “Feel Me,” at her Revival tour opener. [YouTube]
- Gomez also maybe stole Katy Perry’s boyfriend Orlando Bloom? [TMZ]
- Alicia Keys debuted the song “Hallejulah” on SNL. [NBC]
- One Direction may be on hiatus, but that won’t stop them from appearing on Family Guy next week. [Twitter]
- In other Very Important 1D News, Harry Styles got a haircut. [The Sun]
- On Mother’s Day Kanye West surprised Kim Kardashian with an orchestra in their living room playing “Tomorrow” and “Let It Go.” [Instagram]
- Rihanna launched a college scholarship. [Elle]
- Nicki Minaj says her ex is suing her for physical and emotional abuse. [HipHopDX]
- This summer Garth Brooks will perform in NYC for the first time in 19 years. [The Daily Mail]
- The New York Times asked DJ Khaled to explain his keys to olds; Khaled mentioned that he’s terrified of Beyoncé. [NY Times]
- Madonna will pay tribute to Prince at the Billboard Music Awards later this month. [ABC]