Ariana Grande, "My Everything" (Republic Records)
This is how you follow up an impressive debut: simply step into the recording booth, and be amazing yet again.
Maybe it's easier said than done, but Ariana Grande manages to pull off the feat with her sophomore release "My Everything," the successor to last year's near-pop perfection "Yours Truly," which topped the Billboard 200 chart and spawned the hit single "The Way," featuring Mac Miller.
Admittedly, Grande's sophomore effort doesn't go in a radically different direction (she was on the right path to begin with), but big changes are there. For one, music veteran Kenneth "Babyface" Edmonds is nowhere to be found. Still, the R&B and soul sensibilities that he brought to "Yours Truly" are at play, even without him.
That's evident on "Be My Baby," featuring Norwegian DJ Cashmere Cat, and in the slick bounce of "Break Your Heart Right Back." Produced and co-written by duo Pop & Oak, the latter samples Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out." Featured guest Childish Gambino repurposes bars from Notorious B.I.G.'s "Mo Money, Mo Problems" for the track.
Additional collaborations with rappers, including Big Sean, A$AP Ferg as well as Iggy Azalea on the successful single "Problem," might tempt critics to accuse Grande of relying on old formulas. But she shows growth, busting out of familiar genres, and exploring electronic dance music on second single "Break Free," featuring Zedd, and again on the David Guetta-written "One Last Time."
Thankfully, no matter where Grande ventures, her dazzling vocals lead the way -- powerful on the Benny Blanco and Ryan Tedder-produced "Why Try," with its hypnotic drums, and light-as-a-feather on "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart," with its aching and lovesick lyrics co-written by One Direction's Harry Styles.
The 21-year-old Grande has a fantastic voice, and she and her team have found the music to showcase that. A feat that isn't to be underestimated, considering the powerhouse vocalists who've been bypassed for passable singers with more memorable tracks.
Sure, "My Everything" was a safe bet -- but only in the best of ways. For some fans, the listening experience will be like returning to a delicious little restaurant they've recently discovered, and finding that the food is as good as they thought it was the first time.