It’s rather ironic that the lead single for Dangerous Woman is entitled “Focus,” because that’s exactly what the record lacks. On her third album Ariana Grande remains the queen of mixed messages, but the voice she uses to trumpet them is so deliciously decadent that it’s hard to care about the scattershot tracklist. Look, it’s not that I don’t believe Ariana could be one day construed as a dangerous woman–reinvention is one of the best and most powerful aspects of womanhood–it’s just that she opted to wear bunny ears in the cover photo for the album touting this message. The ears are much more Ari than any sense of threat; danger simply isn’t her lane. Unless you count licking doughnuts as hazardous.
The title for Grande’s album changed late in the game from Moonlight–very Ariana, falls in line with sincerity-specific past titles Yours Truly and My Everything–to Dangerous Woman, a clear chess move meant to distance Grande from her yung Nickelodeon come up. What’s frustrating for fans is that the album opener and former title track “Moonlight” doubles down on the jazzy, moonbeam devotion that has set her apart from a cohort of fledgling pop divas. The vast majority of the album feels strangely overstuffed and overproduced, it covers every base so thoroughly that danger is the last thing on anyone’s mind, it is the safest possible collection of princess pop ephemera since Ariel combed her hair with a fork under the sea. Which doesn’t stop some of these songs from functioning as great pop songs on their own, it just makes the album itself almost unlistenable as a whole.
That’s sort of the point that a Rolling Stone review made about the album in a loving yet critical write up of the record. It is almost baffling that Grande can’t pull of a more cohesive vision, because her charisma is so strong that even when pointing out flaws critics remain overwhelmingly kind. But Internet-equipped fanbases are swift to squash any critiques of beloved, larger-than-life stars that have emerged, and have come to interpret any criticism of art as a flaw on the part of the writer. Which is how we end up with a Change.org petition arguing against the Rolling Stone review and demanding it be retracted, mostly, because its three out of five star assessment is bringing down Grande’s overall Metacritic score. That fans are concerned with this kind of online measurement is an odd, post-Pitchfork development in its own right–they’re just as concerned with the narrative around their favorite artist’s album as they are about the album itself. I’m not sure if that concern is exhausting or empowering.
Even armed with grassroots activism, Dangerous Woman is a butter knife asking to be called a sword. Even the ever-languorous Future sounds out of breath on the pogo stick chorus of “Everyday,” a track we all know would’ve been improved upon by a brief call to Metro Boomin instead of Max Martin’s protege Ilya. Young Money kingpin Lil Wayne and Grande’s former firestarter collaborator Nicki Minaj are equally lukewarm on “Let Me Love You” and “Side To Side,” the former an extremely bad “Good For You” impression, the latter a weird reggae-EDM interpolation that made me scramble to put on “Trini Dem Girls” directly after for palette cleanser. The title track is slinky, torchy success, even if the lyrics attribute her newfound sense of danger to the presence of a man. Later, the same issue on “Bad Decisions”–her wildness is only a product of a relationship, not an internal choice.
“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” she asks on this track, and honestly? No. I have not witnessed this. Despite a deep love for the full-dozen, red rose bouquet that is Ariana Grande’s voice, it’s impossible to assert that she’s pulled off anything relatively near Bad Bitch status on Dangerous Woman. Except, perhaps, the fact that “Dangerous Woman” hit the Billboard top 10 making her the first artist in the chart’s 57-year history to lead off in the top 10 with the first single from each of her first three albums. That’s a fantastic stat, but charts are the safe route. If she wanted to take a page out of a true bad bitch’s handbook, she should talk less about danger and fight for creative control over every song on her record like Rihanna recently did with Anti—we all know that battle paid the fuck off. Less talk, more action right?
But–no one needed her explain again and again how dangerous she is! We liked the Nickelodeon-raised America-hating girl just fine. When she’s the enraptured girl in the club waiting to be lit up on “Into You” Ariana shines just as brightly as she did on My Everything’s Zedd-assisted “Break Free.” Acoustic-guitar-and-beat-machine amalgam “Sometimes” is pure Max Martin magic, as is “Touch It,” the song that most reminds me of her Weeknd collab “Love Me Harder.” Though bringing up those two My Everything tracks feels bittersweet, because nothing on Dangerous Woman lives up to them. At least there’s no sign of her blundering tryhard ex-boyfriend Big Sean to be found here. The only song that might recall his ghost is the final track on the deluxe version, “Thinkin’ Bout You,” one that hits with the same lightness that only the opening song “Moonlight” contained. Bring on the drama kid theatricality, leave the danger to Macy Gray’s charring voice–she can pull it off.
Though the album failed to live up to my hopes for it, I am not disappointed, but optimistic that she’ll settle into a role that feels more comfortable–and I’m not the only one that feels this way. It seems like there hasn’t been such a groundswell of “rooting for” a pop star since this year’s concern for Bieber. So many of these songs are about becoming, and on Dangerous Woman Ariana is still very much on the way. That doesn’t make her any less ours, or any less sincere. Even when she fails abysmally–and there are a few here–that majestic voice has fans and critics alike hoping and hoping she’ll blossom into a woman after all. A dangerous one if she wants, sure, but it seems like even the full-grown Ariana is partial to those bunny ears. Let’s hear more from her.