Source Material: Ariana Grande's 'My Everything'
The more you think about it, the more Ariana Grande seems to have dominated the summer of 2014. Back in late April, “Problem” — the lead single from her second full-length album, My Everything — began its sharp rise up the charts, to No. 2. Though kept one notch shy of the top slot by John Legend (and soon overtaken by another monster summer single, Iggy Azalea's “Fancy”, “Problem” prefigured several seasonal developments. Grande's single featured strong support from summer-dominating Ms. Fancy herself (and Iggy's single would likewise lean heavily upon the guest presence of another female star, Charli XCX). And, at the tail end of the summer, Grande once again dropped a killer single, “Bang Bang,” this time boasting not one but two fellow pop women tearing it up in support (Jessie J and Nicki Minaj).
Both “Problem” and “Bang Bang” sound like slight throwbacks in this year of the twerk, stuffed with gutbucket R&B horn riffs, '60s soul handclaps and punchy choruses. And that makes a fair bit of sense, because Ariana Grande herself seems a slightly old-fashioned pop performer: a Nickelodeon star and Broadway performer who made the artistic switch into adulthood without any of the gauche splash of fellow child star and former Disney Channel regular Miley Cyrus. But she’s no prude. In fact, My Everything features its fair share of frank sex talk, especially within the handful of steamy duets navigated by this expert delegator, including one memorable encounter with dirty-minded Toronto R&B enigma The Weeknd (who mostly behaves himself, even as Grande warns him she may bite her lip in the moment).
That balance between squeaky-clean pinup and liberated adult helps make My Everything a calm, media-savvy statement of artistic purpose that never once threatens to wander too far from her fan base’s expectations. And Grande retains her gift for handpicking pitch-perfect collaborators, even when said collaborators are drawn from outside her area of expertise.
So if we want to try and unpack the inspirations, influences and allusions that help make My Everything the well-constructed state of the art pop album that it is, we need to begin by examining Grande's actual area of expertise, which remains '90s pop and urban radio. Mariah Carey rightly gets singled out as Grande's primary musical influence. She herself claims “Mariah is literally my favorite human being on the planet,” and one doesn’t need to strain to hear the elusive chanteuse’s vocal fingerprints all over Grande's 2013 debut, Yours Truly (just compare Carey's 1990 “Someday” to “The Way”).
But even though Carey and Grande share multi-octave ranges, Grande spends less time indulging in canary flights. Equally essential to her bag of tricks are less flashy singers who rely on aching hurt (Judy Garland, a favorite of Grande's since she was a child) or sass (the incomparable Fergie) to get the point across. Fellow Floridian Gloria Estefan signifies in Grande's life beyond her music, having once encouraged the child performer to continue on a musical path. And while '90s R&B icon Brandy remains a major influence, Grande also claims fealty to India.Arie and the compositional trickery of Imogen Heap (singled out consistently by Grande as an inspiration).
My Everything also draws heavily from in-demand producers and songwriters. The producers Benny Blanco, Zedd and Cashmere Cat represent the pop/EDM overlap, while Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic composed “Why Try” (compare that cut to OneRepublic's own “Apologize” or Tedder-penned Leona Lewis track “You Don’t Care”). And Harry Styles of One Direction supplied huge weepy ballad “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart” (which sounds quite a bit like a huge weepy One Direction ballad).
While Grande herself rarely spits rhymes, hip-hop is in the My Everything house, from Grande fave Big Sean to backpack rapper Childish Gambino, who surfaces on “Break Your Heart Right Back,” a wry tale of your dude leaving you for another dude. Note how Grande expertly weaves a sample from Diana Ross' 1980 gay-pride anthem “I’m Coming Out” into the song. (That vintage track was previously sampled on The Notorious B.I.G.'s “Mo Money Mo Problems.”) Trap sensation A$AP Ferg also makes an appearance, on the saucy and direct “Hands On Me” (“Don’t take them off until I say so,” Grande insists). The track takes a bit of inspiration from Bon Jovi's “Lay Your Hands On Me” (especially Dolly Parton's gospel version).
Indeed, part of what has made “Problem” and “Bang Bang” irresistible summer singles is their clever pop appropriations. That incessant sax lick on “Problem” harkens back to Jennifer Lopez's 2005 “Get Right” (the nonstop saxophone having been sampled from James Brown horn man Maceo Parker), and looks forward to Jason Derulo's sax-heavy 2014 anthem “Wiggle.” (One also hears undeniable similarities to Atlanta crunk duo Ying Yang Twins' “Wait [The Whisper Song].”) And “Bang Bang” steals a sampled hook directly out from under George Michael and Wham! — no, you weren’t imagining a whiff of 1984’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” — while drawing from the same collective energy that drove the 2001 diva-summit version of “Lady Marmalade.” That Moulin Rouge set piece claimed Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Mýa and Pink, a mighty show of female pop force. As the Summer of Ariana heads to a close, Grande, Jessie J and Nicki Minaj seem fine inheritors of that showy crown.