If this week’s deluge of new R&B releases were dining experiences, John Legend’s fourth album, Love in the Future, would be a sort of traditional Italian, white-table-cloth, ancient-waiter affair. Tamar Braxton’s Love and War, meanwhile, would be more like a visit to Olive Garden – its charm is in its tacky populism. Jaheim’s sixth album, Appreciation Day, falls somewhere in between – he uses his Vandross-like pipes to sing things that Luther never would (the title track’s unabridged name is actually “Pussy Appreciation Day”). Continuing the culinary theme, Janelle Monáe’s sophomore album The Electric Lady (out next week) is like an eclectic tasting menu where all the dishes are arranged around soul. The Weeknd’s Kiss Land (also out next week) is Doggy Chow. My favorite R&B album of the year, AlunaGeorge’s Body Music, is like molecular gastronomy.
And then there is Yours Truly, the debut album from 20-year-old Nickelodeon star/Broadway vet Ariana Grande. This is the Pizza Hut of R&B albums. I mean that as praise. The thing about Pizza Hut is that it isn’t pizza. It is a buttery, pizza-ish concoction, in which everything wonderful about pizza is brought gleefully, artery-cloggingly over the top. Once you understand that Pizza Hut is not pizza, that it’s not even a replacement or alternative, just a what-if scenario so alternate that it becomes its own scenario entirely, you can appreciate its worth.
No one is going to mistake Grande’s indefatigably peppy spin on modern R&B as something that extends or explores the vast soul tradition. Yours Truly is all about skimming the surface of contemporary R&B for maximum ear-candy potential. Though she is clearly being groomed for divadom, Yours Truly never finds Grande outshining her tracks. Her voice is never mixed to blare out her beats, which frequently sample samples. The first single, “The Way,” interpolates Big Pun’s “Still Not a Player,” which means the latter track’s foundation of Brenda Russell’s “A Little Bit of Love” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Brazilian Rhyme (Beijo)” are replicated. “Right There” is based on Jeff Lorber Fusion’s “Rain Dance,” most famously sampled in Lil’ Kim and Cease’s “Crush on You.” “Lovin’ It” replays the piano from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” so that it’s plunkier and spunkier than ever.
Yours Truly rarely slows down beyond an insistent sway (with the exception of the piano duet with her boyfriend Nathan Sykes from the Wanted, “Almost Is Never Enough,” her ballads are midtempo, doo-wop referencing romps). Generally, Grande’s songs are hyper crack hits of R&B-inflected pop, bouncing so insistently they occasionally recall New Orleans seemingly inadvertently. She has a tendency to sing extremely fast. Among the many hooks of the second single “Baby I,” co-written and -produced by vet Babyface, is, “But every time I try to say it / Words, they only complicate it,” sung in a rapid, two-second blur (this becomes surreal when repeated three times during the song’s climax). The first section of the hook of the most addictive song, “Lovin’ It” (there are hooks within the hooks!), is similarly blurred and slurred: “Nothin' but lovin' you/ Nothin' but lovin' you baby / (Boy you got all my time)/ Lovin' you, lovin' you / Lovin' it, lovin' it baby / (Boy you got all my, all my…).” “When I recorded ‘The Way’ I was like a giddy idiot. Like first-day butterflies. I smiled the whole time I recorded the song,” Grande told Elle, not that she needed to say it. You can hear her giddy idiot smile through the speakers.
Grande’s on-record persona is wide-eyed and chaste. In public, she wears ribbons in her hair and cupcake dresses – during the pre-show for the MTV Video Music Awards, she appeared to have been outfitted by Disney World’s Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique (“I do love girly, flouncy skirts,” she confirmed to Elle). When the director of video for “The Way” suggested that she and guest rapper Mac Miller kiss, she exclaimed, “Oh my goodness!” Also in that video, she frolics amongst balloons. Though she's 20 years old, she comes off as someone who is much younger but trying to appear older – in the same way that some women (such as Michelle Visage) appear to be channeling drag queens (women dressing like men dressing like women), the dimpled and dewy Ariana Grande is sporting a straight-up Toddlers & Tiaras swag.
This makes sense coming from someone who has called the eternally 12 Mariah Carey her “favorite human being on the planet.” While comparisons to Carey have resulted from Grande's music and are likely shaping her narrative (though her answer to a recent interview question about her influences contained cited India.Arie and Imogen Heap over Carey), what’s unique is the way she incorporates the influence. Grande sounds most like Carey during her creamier, quieter coos, and not during the belting that Carey (along with Whitney Houston) is generally credited with making the de facto law of young diva singing (see: American Idol, every other young diva). Grande sometimes replicates the congested bleating of Britney Spears, and there is a palpable Christina Aguilera influence when she growls, but Grande’s voice is far more elastic than the former and more nuanced than the latter. She hasn’t logged the years to transmit her soul through your ears, but this seems like a conscious decision. In "Piano," which Grande co-wrote (like many of her songs), she explains, "I could write a song with my new piano I could sing about how love is a losing battle / Not hard, (it's not hard)...But I'd rather make a song they can play on the radio / That makes you wanna dance / Don't it make you wanna dance? / But I rather make a song they can play on the radio? / That makes you wanna grab your lover's hand..."
The white table cloths and ancient waiters will come later. For now, we feast on Pizza Hut.
[Image via Getty]