Danger has never been so inviting.
“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” Ariana Grande asks on Dangerous Woman. This provocative inquiry is not only sure to be a Tinder profile hallmark for months to come, but it also perfectly describes the singer’s third studio album. Grande isn’t quite yet free of her sugary high-ponytailed image (after all, the most dangerous thing she’s ever done is lick a donut), but she explores uncharted, sexier waters so successfully on this album that she has more than earned its formidable title. She capitalizes on the paradox of innocence and sexuality with more fervor and credence than anyone since Britney Spears, and that’s the highest praise I had ever imagined myself giving to anyone, especially Miss Grande. But I’ll do her one better: Dangerous Woman is likely the strongest pop release we’ll hear in 2016, and it’s certainly the best of her short but very prolific career.
There are different kinds of dangerous in Ariana’s world, and she tackles many of them on this release. She’s a predator, craving a scandalous hookup on the club jam “Into You” and savoring her lover’s body on the disco-tinged standout song “Greedy”. On the title track, which is nothing short of an ode to Christian Grey, she’s a good girl who wants so badly to go bad. And on the twinkly album opener “Moonlight”, she rivals Lana Del Rey in who can make a toxic relationship sound dreamier and more romantic, breathlessly cooing “He’s so bossy, he makes me dance.” It’s hard to tell which is closer to the real Ariana because she portrays all these personas with such surprising vehemence and authenticity, and you know she didn’t learn that from her days on Nickelodeon.
The sexually liberated nature of the album perfectly complements the singer’s public persona; in the last year, Grande has garnered praise for speaking out against sexism and gender inequality, and on this album, she seems to equate dangerous with confident and independent. But as enticingly enigmatic as this femme fatale character is, the album is noticeably void of any truly autobiographical elements. It’s anybody guess as to which songs might be about her breakup with Big Sean, for example. And that seems to be the point. Ariana seems fully in control, showing us exactly what she wants us to see. She’s chosen to separate the music from her celebrity, both the good side (routinely calling out her prejudiced Instagram followers) and the bad (“I hate America”).
Sonically, her elusive personality works in this album’s favor. Unlike on her sophomore My Everything, which tried and failed to be, well, everything all at once, Dangerous Woman feels cohesive and finds strength in its genre experimentation. Grande avoids trends and instead grasps a solid through line with the aid of mega producer Max Martin, who has his hand in almost every track. So when she imbues “Side to Side” with reggae music or slides into a 90s dance groove on “Be Alright”, it not only works, it elevates the album in ways that feel organic and unique.
Still, Grande pulls no punches; just when it seems like she has taken every turn possible without derailing her well-oiled musical machine, she makes another detour. “Sometimes” reveals shades of Ariana’s retro-R&B past, beautifully straddling both the campfire and the club, while “I Don’t Care” transports the pint-sized pop diva to a gloomy lounge.
One Grande staple that has remained on Dangerous Woman is the singer’s affinity for collaborations. The album is padded with several high-profile guests, and while her earlier career was dependent on features from artists like the Weeknd and Iggy Azalea, they seem largely unnecessary here. Lil Wayne and Future take their respective turns on “Let Me Love You” and “Everyday” as the bad boy object of Ariana’s affections, but they offer some of the album’s more forgettable moments. And while Macy Gray’s unexpected appearance on the soulful torch song “Leave Me Lonely” and Nicki Minaj’s bouncy verse on “Side to Side” give the album more versatility, Ariana proves that she works best alone.
Of course, it’s easy for an artist to coast on her vocals. Featured singers will always feel excessive and an ambiguous personality will always be easily overlooked when the voice is that good. She has become so distinctive through her radio dominance that even the once-apt comparisons to Mariah Carey are inadmissible now. Even so, as outstanding as her pipes are (and for the record, she’s never sounded better), listening to fifteen tracks straight when she only exercises vocal restraint on a handful of occasions can be exhausting. Similarly, it’s forgivable when you can’t quite make out what she’s saying on the radio, but when her unintelligible truncations span the course of an entire album, it easily wears on anyone who regards proper enunciation as a linguistic must.
Dangerous Woman proves that Ariana Grande is here to stay. For the first time in her career, she has given up trying to please others and finally seems to be making music for herself. I don’t know if that makes her dangerous, but it certainly makes her a pop force to be reckoned with.