Glee will begin its fifth season this month, and American Idol is busy trying to secure its lineup of judges for the coming 13th season. Together, even though they’re perennially unfashionable, these Fox shows have been responsible for an intense surge of interest in music on television, but they haven’t left much of a mark on the shape of pop.
That’s because both shows are fundamentally conservative institutions, privileging the familiar and the unchallenging. They’re about emulating, not innovating.
Largely by sticking to those codes, Ariana Grande has become the first identifiable post-Glee/Idol pop star, in that she takes the rules of those enterprises, uses them as a foundation and innovates atop them. She relates to pop music in the ways those shows do — treating it as a historical inspiration pool and also a sacred text.
But Grande isn’t a mere covers artist. A onetime child actress — she played Cat Valentine on the Nickelodeon’s Victorious and now on the spinoff Sam & Cat — she uses the Glee/Idol template as a jumping-off point to make modern pop-R&B with a sturdy vintage backbone.
For Grande, the early-mid 1990s are the holy grail. So much of this surprisingly strong album is in debt to Mariah Carey’s first two albums, and several songs were written and produced in part by Babyface, that titan of slow-burn late-1980s R&B. A few songs are riddled with blatant Mariah-isms: especially the final 20 seconds of Baby I, in which Grande approximates the super-high-pitched vocal trills that Carey excelled at.
Grande is almost there. She has a lithe voice and is capable of real power, although she doles it out carefully. Like that other child TV star turned pop comer Miley Cyrus, Grande is 20, but her slide into maturity isn’t moving at Cyrus’ warp speed. Grande’s version of adulthood is about expertise, not transgression.
She’s not so innocent that the guest rappers on this album keep their libidos in check, though. “You a princess to the public but a freak when it’s time,” Mac Miller exclaims on The Way; “A player so you know I had some girls missionary/My black book of numbers thicker than a dictionary,” Big Sean swears on Right There.
They’re expressing thoughts that Grande can’t quite, both because of the squeakiness of her clean and because of the austerity of her sound. Yours Truly is largely sweatless. “I wanna say we’re going steady/Like it’s 1954,” she sings on Tattooed Heart, which captures the tenor of this album well. Just as the song structures are traditional, so is the sound.
A couple of songs wink to mid-’90s hip-hop: Right There uses the same sample as Lil’ Kim’s 1996 hit Crush on You, and The Way uses the same sample as Big Punisher’s 1998 Still Not a Player. But Grande’s real innovation is to restore the attitude and power to more traditional pop schemas. Daydreamin’ is clean-cut 1950s-style piano pop, and the striking Tattooed Heart has a doo-wop heartbeat. One of the album’s high points is Almost Is Never Enough, a bracing torch song on which Grande sneaks in some gospel-singing enunciation for extra effect. It’s practically Streisandian, startling in its utter rejection of the now, and ripe for some young singer on Glee or Idol to butcher.
— Jon Caramanica, NY Times News Service