While some child actors have turned to a less-moral persona, Ariana Grande, actress from Nickelodeon’s “Victorious” and “Sam & Cat,” has decided to take a more gracious path on her debut album “Yours Truly.”
Her savory voice and 90s R&B-inspired production is more focused than music from recent pop artists.
Grande’s “The Way,” featuring Philadelphia rapper Mac Miller has become a smash hit on the radio. What strikes first, beyond the old school rhythm and funky piano melody, is the song’s last-minute shift in direction.
The album’s first single, “Put Your Hearts Up,” was released December 2011 and despite the core theme of helping one another and changing the world, the cheesy production and rote lyrics would have landed the album in the bargain bin two months after its release; it was Kidz Bop without even trying.
In a wise and certainly courageous move, Grande convinced her label to change direction towards “the music that [she] grew up loving, which was urban pop, 90s music,” according to a March 28 Billboard article.
“Yours Truly” benefits heavily from its throwback, new jack and swing sounds, and pits Grande as an artist revering the past and in control of her present. Her vocal style, rich in tone and full of melisma, fits in with the artists from that era – TLC, Lauryn Hill, Boyz II Men, Destiny’s Child and Mariah Carey – and sounds proper over party-ready grooves and syncopated percussion in lieu of modern Top 40 synth drops.
The album’s flagship single, “The Way,” exudes Grande’s old school charm with ease. Over a lovely piano sample and trap-influenced snare rolls with call-and-response shouts woven into the beat, she sounds elated. Singing her vocals with a building passion as the verses pass by, she ends the song in an abnormally high register.
Other songs crafted in this style exceed, if not match that lilting sense of freedom. It is not that Grande spends her time musing about Adam Smith or emancipation on this album; the topic is a revolving door of new loves and post-breakup sadness.
While it does lessen the album’s lyrical density, it is akin to the euphoria experienced when life unfolds in the best way possible. Grande laces “Right There” as if it was a cover of a song she has listened to for ages, zips over “Lovin’ Its’” crisp production with bubbly verve, and kills “Baby I,” the most minimally produced tune that shines even more to the emphasis on Grande’s vocals.
Grande’s nostalgic interest in this now-classic sound along with the assumed hand-holding from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, a Grammy Award-winning pioneer of 90s R&B, lends an effortless atmosphere that still feels mature.
Tracks that deviate from her preferred genre do not automatically flop, but they become more susceptible to cling to industry standards or feel out of place. Grande’s sonorous vocals thankfully keep listeners at a solid level of engagement, but the elements surrounding her predestine the outcome more than her involvement.
Her tender piano duet with boyfriend Nathan Sykes on “Almost Is Never Enough” might be the slowest song, but the emotional repartee between the two is beautiful – dusty doo-wop songs with tired cliches such as “Tattooed Heart” and “Daydreamin’” seem painfully vaudevillian in comparison.
“Better Left Unsaid” and “Popular Song,” the songs most voted to have been sanctioned by a man in a suit, do stifle her vocal power noticeably, but thankfully bring other factors to the mix: the former is a slow ballad that explodes into a thumping club banger and the latter features a choice interpolation of the Broadway musical “Wicked’s” most well-known song, “Popular,” borrowing that song’s saccharine charm for a satisfying result.
“Yours Truly” still runs like one smooth project despite the breaks in style. Already fitted with modest gospel chops, Grande made the right choice in rooting her album’s sound in the rhythmic sounds of her youth.
As an artist doomed to crumble under the weight of the child actor-singer machine that rarely churns out Justin Timberlakes, she managed to choose intuition and integrity over fame and dollar signs. Graciously, the public responded in kind.