Welcome to Junk Mail, where a few Music Times staffers email back-and-forth about each week's biggest release throughout the work day. This week Carolyn Menyes, Kyle Dowling, Caitlin Carter chat about Ariana Grande's new album, My Everything. Feel free to join in the conversation in the comments section, and check back next week for more.
Carolyn Menyes: I spend a lot of time writing about Ariana Grande, probably more than any one person should. So, by default, I ended up liking her music quite a bit. She clearly has one of the best voices in pop right now, much like a mini Mariah Carey (and I bet Mariah hates that).
So, just a year after her debut album Yours Truly, we have her second effort... and it's clear she's really aiming for those hits. While Yours Truly had a few smashes on it, it was clearly a pure R&B album. This is definitely pop. I mean, she worked with Zedd for goodness' sake! Thus, this album is way less consistent than her first. The highs are hella high but the lows are so forgettable...
I know you guys aren't as immersed in Ariana as I am. So WHAT DID YOU THINK?!
Caitlin Carter: The first thing I thought was this album did seem all over the place but that this girl's got some pipes. It's very feature heavy, which at times makes it feel like she is being upstaged by bigger personalities. I liked that she opened with a vocal exercise thing. It was like a "Listen up, what you are about to hear comes from my raw talent. I know how to freaking sing," which I thought was pretty badass.
Kyle Dowling: First, is anyone surprised to hear (or read) that this is the first Ariana Grande album I've listened to? (I'll hold for your gasps).
Secondly, from the very first song I felt like I was listening to a young Mariah Carey - which I don't know if that's good or bad because I've never been a huge fan of hers.
In short, I wasn't a huge fan of the album, but that's mainly due to the fact that I don't listen to pop. Having said that, it's hard for me to speak ill of her voice but I think it's damn good at parts. Like I said, the intro sounded so, so, so much like Mariah Carey. And "Just A Little Bit of Your Heart" was done very well. Sadly, there were a number of songs that I just didn't latch onto.
CM: GASP, KYLE! :-O
Grande definitely can sing... but you know what she can't do? Enunciate! Think about that and listen to "Break Free" again... your ears will start to bleed.
As far as the featured artist thing goes, that was a very specific choice to get this girl more hits on the Billboard charts. Her solo songs from her debut album didn't chart nearly as well as her collaboration with Mac Miller "The Way," so they're going for that. And think about the single choices this far... an Iggy Azalea song and a Zedd song (and people are buzzing that her Big Sean track "Best Mistake" is next). I mean, it worked. She had three songs in the top 10 last week on the Hot 100, which is insane. And I don't have a real problem with it. It's just how it is to be in the ~machine~.
I honestly don't think Ariana can carry a song all on her own to make it to radio. For one, she has a wooden stage presence (rewatch her on the VMAs) and blank eyes in all her videos and, once again, she can't enunciate.
CC: That was one thing I felt I was missing from her: authenticity. She has the skills but does she make me believe her. It does very much seem like she is a puppet in the hit churning machine. Having skill and having soul are different things.
KD: I'd agree that matching herself with the likes of Iggy Azalea, Zedd and Big Sean was a smart thing. "Problem" is a song that I can totally see getting some great play at a club. Unfortunately, I'll never be a club to experience it.
I also wonder if she can carry a song alone. The album is littered with guest stars, which would be cool if she was more established, but here it seems like a cry for help...to a degree.
CM: Haha, you're really not into pop music, are you Kyle? :-P I think "Problem" has been getting plenty of club play. It's been deemed a "song of the summer" by whoever decides these things. (I guess people like us.)
She can carry a song on her own... kind of? Her last album had this song "Baby I," which was a wonderful '90s throwback track. But despite being a single and a strong song, it didn't resonate as strongly with audiences. She may be too quiet and small to really command with power on her own. She needs someone to stand by her side on stage, much like a fawn. (She often looks like a deer in headlights, so this makes sense.)
So, yeah, it's a cry for help, but I can't really deny that it makes for some great pop. "Problem" is stupidly infectious. Like, it's been stuck in my head for three months now. I also love the chemistry she has with her probable boyfriend Big Sean on "Best Mistake..." the song feels really haunting and beautiful, and their vibes gel well together.
Despite the million guest artists, what do y'all think are some individual standouts? Flops?
CC: "My Everything" and "Best Mistake" were standouts for me. Those felt very genuine rather than processed-pop. I agree with "Problem" and "Break Free" being extremely catchy. As for flops, I thought "Hands on Me" felt forced and kinda fell flat.
KD: For me, "Break Your Heart Right Now" was a big lose, which is a bummer because I like what I've heard from Childish Gambino thus far. It just felt boring to me for some reason.
As far as my likes, though I'll never be caught shaking my trunk in a club next to a bunch of fine and fellow clubgoers, I did enjoy "Problem." I also REALLY enjoyed "Bang Bang" -- it's a fun song and I very much dug Nicki Minaj's part on it. Now, if I were passing a club and I heard THAT song playing from the outside... maybe I'd stop. Or, I'd imagine myself in my head with smooth dance skills taking over the dance floor. In reality, I'd probably pass by with my vanilla latte saying, "I like that number..." because I'm just a boring, old white dude. Regardless, IMO (you're welcome, Internet) "Bang Bang" is the best song on this album.
CM: "Bang Bang" is pure fire. Everyone involved on that song deserves major kudos.
"Best Mistake" is the easy standout for me. There's nothing bad about that track, really. I also love The Weeknd collaboration "Love Me Harder." How those two never teamed up before is a shock to me... they meld really well together, and I want more of that kind of music from Ariana moving forward.
As for my least favorite songs... "Hands On Me" feels like a Pussycat Dolls throwaway. And hearing Ariana Grande sing those over-sexualized lyrics made me feel really uncomfortable. Look at her... she's 85 pounds dripping wet and has the face of a 14-year-old. I don't want to hear about her screwing with her high heels on. That's just gross. And A$AP Ferg's "It's your birthday!" refrain is so laughable. Like, wow, it's corny.
I also think "Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart" is boring as hell. I keep forgetting that song actually exists.
Ariana Grande could be the QUEEN of the ballad, but all the ones on My Everything suck. Womp womp.
CC: "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart" felt very generic to me as well. This album didn't take many chances, per se, but I guess it worked out for her. I'd like to see her next album feel more personal or something to where when I heard it I would think "That's definitely an Ariana Grande song." I think My Everything set her up well as a foundation, now she needs to run with it and make her sound her own. I think then she'll be able to carry a song by herself.
KD: That makes sense to me. But I guess I’m just wondering what her sound is because it appears she’s either copied or sampled sounds from other artists on My Everything. Then again, she’s still young and could very well be in the middle of finding her voice.
I think that what this album shows is the potential for something good in the future. Unfortunately, this album doesn’t do much for me. But like I said, there’s potential.
CM: Y'all hit the nail on the head.
She had a style on her first album, but it got washed away here for more generic pop. It's sort of a shame, and it's why My Everything is good but not great and VERY inconsistent. Ariana Grande is just clearly too insecure to really command a song or even lead an album purely on her own, and it really shows. Not everyone could sing these songs, and this chick needs to have the balls to prove it.
CC: I think they are trying to peg her as the next big vocal diva --the next Mariah Carey as it seems. But the thing about being a DIVA is that you are distinct and have something that no one else has. Right now, I agree with you Kyle that she doesn't quite have a distinct sound or style. Not that I think having a style is all that important. If she wanted to change up on genres, I think she'd be fine at whatever she sang.
I guess I'm looking for something more than a beautiful voice that happens to reach otherworldly notes. I want attitude. I want soul. I want grit. I feel like all the past R&B/pop divas had something that was all theirs. But she could well be on the road to discovering that.
KD: Despite her talents, I don't think this album is her everything (come on, we all knew that would make its way in here eventually, right?) Anyway, she's got some great vocal talents, and I think there's potential here for a brighter future once she finds her sound. But it seems like with each track she's very much in the shadow of the ones "guest-starring" on her songs.
CM: The highs on My Everything make up some of the best pop of 2014 thus far, but they get lost in the shuffle on this very mixed album. Ariana has that big, bombastic voice but not the personality to carry it through to a full album. So, this record comes out as just OK in my book. As an overall package, her first one was better.