Nobody expected Ariana Grande to make one of the best pop records of the year. (At least, I certainly didn’t.) The pint-sized songbird with the Nickelodeon pedigree had a few solid songs and it was clear that she could sing, but it wasn’t until “The Way” that everyone realized she could sang: With the vocals of a young Mariah Carey, a whistle register and melismas for days, her instrument turned out to be one of the best-kept secrets in the industry.
Some of Grande’s debut LP Yours Truly, out today on Republic Records, feels a little tepid; Harmony Samuels, who helmed much of the record, is generally hit-and-miss, so when he gets it right, it’s soulful and dynamic, but all that throwback flavor can get snoozy at a certain point. That said, when it’s good, it’s so good.
Consider the retro-soul flavor of “Honeymoon Avenue,” which works gorgeously, with those scatting harmonies and a chorus that gleams. Conceptually, it stands up (“My heart is stuck in bumper to bumper” is so goofy it works), and her voice sounds simply sensational. “Baby I” is just hooks on hooks on hooks, with those Britney Spears-circa-”Oops!” choirs of affirmations. She’s treading a fine and occasionally disconcerting line between chastity and sexuality; the porny album cover was wisely ditched in favor of a more elegant one, but she never steps into anything too provocative. The come-hithers on “Right There” and “Lovin’ It” are tantalizing, not explicit, and they benefit from it.
Yours Truly runs surprisingly slender on ballads, given how her range lends itself to huge heartbreakers, but “Tattooed Heart” is masterful, borrowing ’60s girl group production that’s just spare enough to let her voice shine. Those pained notes she hits in the chorus feel well beyond her years; it’s an absolute powerhouse.
But the album suffers from the same thing that plagues Justin Bieber‘s records — an overabundance of distracting, gratuitous features. It’s one thing to slap a bunch of appearances on a pop record to give it an ostensibly urban edge, but these songs would stand up just fine on their own; there’s no added value in several of the guest spots, especially Big Sean‘s dreary spot on “Right There” and Nathan Sykes‘ thoroughly no1curr vocal on “Almost Is Never Enough.” Most egregious of all is the uncredited LMFAO-style shouting on the chorus of “Better Left Unsaid,” the best song from her recent live set (where’d those big tribal drums in the pre-chorus go?) and the only serious disappointment on the album itself.
It’s tempting to fault her manager Scooter Braun for that: If anything, his clients are increasingly guilty of appearing too on-the-nose; with recent offerings from Carly Rae Jepsen or The Wanted, there was none of the rough-around-the-edges surprise of a song like Icona Pop‘s “I Love It” or Robin Thicke‘s “Blurred Lines,” two of the other songs to unexpectedly storm the charts this year. In fact, the freshest thing on Yours Truly is still “The Way,” not because of how it sounds but because it exists at all, this lost ’90s radio gem that appeared seemingly out of nowhere, all weirdly self-possessed and in its own sonic universe.
Her album delivers on her promise, and it’s liable to make her a star; that will be a good thing. Radio needs Ariana Grande, and if this is a strong debut, the sophomore set is likelier to be even more dazzling.
The Best Song Wasn’t The Single: You just can’t beat “Piano,” a sparkling pop anthem that’s so sweet it hurts. Like the best songs here, even the verse melodies are catchy; it feels patched together from a hundred of the most dulcet summer songs you’ve ever heard. Make it a single.
Best Listened To: Driving down the coast on a breezy summer (well, now fall) day.
Full Disclosure: I saw Grande live a few weeks ago at New York’s Best Buy Theater and thought she had some of the most crushingly flawless live vocals I’ve ever heard, period. This record is mostly the right material. Give her the very best and she’ll be unstoppable.
Idolator Score: 3.5/5
— Sam Lansky