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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 October 2018

Music review: Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony – how to get from B to A-list

The latest pop albums from Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony will succeed in propelling these B-list stars to A-status through manufactured production perfection.
Ariana Grande performs at a charity gala in New York City last month. Her new album Dangerous Woman is full of vocal fireworks and thrills. Kevin Mazur / Getty Images
Ariana Grande performs at a charity gala in New York City last month. Her new album Dangerous Woman is full of vocal fireworks and thrills. Kevin Mazur / Getty Images

When major label pop is called calculated, it’s not necessarily a criticism that carries weight. Few pop fans are naïve enough to believe that their favourite artists’ albums aren’t the result of a factory-like process: songwriters and producers labouring like worker ants; the mercantile trading of guests and cosigns. Indeed, it’s arguably the essence of the genre.

Creating a finely calibrated product geared towards commercial success and attuned to the nuances of the zeitgeist is its own kind of artistry, one that’s illustrated most starkly by the ways truly great pop stands out from more average examples – principally, in the construction of an aesthetic where, even in an era where every angle and credit will be dissected online, the seams don’t show.

Some of the riskiest moments come when an artist attempts to engineer a step up the pecking order. Ariana Grande’s 2013 debut Yours Truly was a special debut, seemingly effortless in its effervescence. The former Nickelodeon child star’s sound was retro, harking back to early ’90s R&B thanks in part to the work of Babyface, the legendary producer of that era – but Grande’s presence was youthful enough that it never felt backwards-looking, and her capacity for vocal acrobatics earned her the soubriquet of “little baby Mariah”.

Its reasonable success – platinum sales, a top 10 single in The Way – convinced Universal Music to go big on investing in Grande. Its follow-up, My Everything in 2014, was a calculated effort to move her out of the teen pop zone by abandoning the niche charms of Yours Truly in favour of trying out every major chart trend of that year. There was moody R&B; there were perky horns; there was EDM. My Everything did its job in outperforming its predecessor, but it was ultimately an unsatisfying work, a box-ticking exercise that lacked the pop-thrill moments that Yours Truly was made of.

Her third album, Dangerous Woman, seems to have the same pitfalls on paper. Again, Grande seems intent on cramming as many disparate styles into one album as possible. The carefree Be Alright reaches back to ’90s house; the title track is a bluesy slow burn; Side to Side is reggae with an irresistible swing, lent further delight through a star turn by Nicki Minaj, referring to herself as “Young Nicki Chim-i-ney” on account of her “smoking” body. None of these directions are surprises; the only curveball is Macy Gray popping up 15 years after her commercial peak with a guest spot that sounds like Nina Simone auditioning for a Bond theme on Leave Me Lonely.

Their execution, though, is magnificent. On My Everything, Grande’s melismatic swooping and soaring too often ended up flailing over underwritten songs that seemed written for a smaller voice – but the material on Dangerous Woman fits her like bespoke couture. Grande’s forte is giddy excitement and she sings as though twirling in front of a mirror in one costume after another.

At the height of the explosive Into You, she’s wreathed in wind chimes and spectacular laser-show synths; Greedy is a joyous disco riot full of sighing backing vocals and melodies like fireworks which, in its final stretch, adds a brilliantly unnecessary key change that pushes the song to an even higher level. This sense of largesse, bordering on the ridiculous, is a sign of confidence that’s the opposite of the bet-hedging that hampered My Everything – and, though a necessary progression from the cutesy innocence of Grande’s debut, gets back to what actually makes her distinct as an artist.

Grande – the daughter of a CEO mother and business-owner father – utterly lacks grit. There’s none of the working-class hustle of Britney Spears or Christina Aguilera, her spiritual predecessors in white-girl pop – though Spears’s 2004 similarly wide-ranging, precision-tooled album In The Zone is possibly Dangerous Woman’s most obvious antecedent, along with less-remembered works of that era such as Christina Milian’s It’s About Time.

Dangerous Woman is a red herring of a title. Grande herself is as dangerous as the black mask with rabbit ears she wears on its cover, and her spin on the time-honoured ex-teen popper’s tale of sexual awakening isn’t especially novel lyrically. But what she excels at is conveying the momentary thrill of being made to feel something that isn’t inherent to her – and, when it’s gone, the intense yearning for it to return: Touch It and Thinking ’Bout You express loneliness first as desperate drama then sighing resignation.

If it’s tough for a B-list solo artist to position themselves for an ascension, it feels all but impossible in 2016 for girl groups to do the same. There has been no global A-list girl group since Destiny’s Child, who effectively disbanded 12 years ago. In recent years, a tyranny of likeability seems to have been imposed, with the most success attained by the rictus-grinned, aggressively relatable likes of Little Mix rather than bold provocateurs such as Electrik Red. The days of Destiny’s Child’s acerbic, occasionally mean attitude – let alone the flat-out surliness of Sugababes – seem long gone.

Fifth Harmony, alumnae of The X Factor USA’s second season in 2012, attempted to triangulate this with their 2015 debut, Reflection – an album that, like My Everything, ultimately came across as just too effortful in its sledgehammer approach to both its empowerment narrative and its production. But their second effort, 7/27, is an unexpected delight for both its quality and its breezy, relaxed feel.

The five-piece still have a weakness for discomfiting metaphors from the depths of capitalist ideology; if Reflection gave us “BO$$” as an independent ladies’ anthem that sounded a little too much like an office motivational chant, the group’s biggest worldwide hit this year has come courtesy of the earworm Work From Home. It clearly wasn’t written by anyone who’s spent much time actually working from home, given how that’s used as a euphemism for allure rather than the reality of mouldering in one’s dressing gown, alternately procrastinating and fretting. “Work, work, work, work” runs the chorus; between this and Rihanna’s Work, it feels a little like radio this year has taken on the role of a boss – an actual one, not an empowered girl group – cracking the whip.

Work From Home is ultimately catchy enough to override all misgivings – but it’s a relief to hear Fifth Harmony sounding rather more blithe and carefree across the rest of 7/27. As an album, it’s slightly off-trend in its reliance on the tropical house sound popularised by Diplo over the past two years, but tracks such as I Lied and The Life make glorious use of the genre’s trademark birdsong melodies as a sixth member of the group.

The amount of pleasurable details that either come as a surprise twist – the dreamy coda of Write On Me, for instance – or are subtle elements in the mix illustrates the love and care that has gone into crafting 7/27. And whereas Reflection found the group adopting a basic strategy of pointing their voices at the end of a verse and hollering, the way they coo in sync and pass the baton between each other seamlessly is key to 7/27. Only the final track strikes a sour note. Musically, Not That Kinda Girl is a sharp update of Prince circa 1982, but its unnecessary mean-girls lyric is at odds with the fact that the women who owned that sound at the time, such as Vanity 6, very much were those kinds of girls, and proud of it as well.

In reality, Dangerous Woman and 7/27 were probably just as focus-grouped and assembled by committee as their predecessors. But the perspiration and the work don’t show: instead, the apparent ease with which Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony tackle their gold-plated material makes them seem like two of the most natural pop acts around in 2016, and more than deserving of the move up the career ladder that both are eyeing.

Alex Macpherson is a freelance journalist who also writes for The Guardian and New Statesman.