At the beginning of her seemingly out-of-nowhere hit lead single “The Way”, a voice says, “We gotta go back… back into time.” And Ariana Grande, the latest Nickelodeon-turned-pop star, follows this advice enthusiastically on her debut album. To ‘when’, exactly, in time, is less clear though. The 12 songs on the album are filled with vintage chord progressions and nostalgia-tinged clichés, but from many different points on the musical timeline. Like Justin Timberlake’s The 20/20 Experience, Yours Truly opens with a flurry of strings that recall classic Hollywood or ‘70s disco. Songs like “Tattoo Heart” and “Daydreaming” utilize stock chord progressions and melodies from the ‘50s and ‘60s girl groups like the Ronettes. But the overwhelming sonic focus of the album is ‘90s R&B.
As soon as “The Way” was released earlier this year, comparisons to Mariah Carey began to spring up. Not just about Grande’s impressive, octave-spanning vocal performance, but about the sleek, percussion heavy production and ‘90s groove. The excellent production continues throughout the album, covered mostly by Harmony Samuels, Babyface, and the Rascals, a new production duo featuring fellow Victorious co-star, Leon Thomas.
However, more than mimicry, this album’s mission is balancing these seemingly disparate sounds. With nostalgia and memory, things blur together. And so for Grande, who was born in 1993 and recounts growing up listening to the Crystals as much as ‘90s Whitney and Carey, these sounds belong together in her memory. Compositionally and production wise, tropes of both styles are blended together effortlessly. Erratic programmed drums support the rich harmonies and piano chords of the more doo-wop songs and the R&B tracks are infused with a wide-eyed optimism more associated with the ‘60s pop style.
Lyrically, this balance is key.
Wisely, the young Grande refuses to use R&B as code for sexuality. Instead, all the songs have the same playful flirtation and insinuation found in her doo-wop and Motown influences. In “Piano”, she sings that she wants to write a song that “makes you wanna grab your lover’s hand”. She even endorses the idea of “going steady like it’s 1955” on “Tattoo Heart”. The sexual tension is certainly there, though. She more than once mentions wanting “it” and needing “you”, but these sentiments are typically expressed during fantasies and daydreams, which becomes a recurring theme throughout Yours Truly. This is ultimately a more successful model than the faux-chastity and innocence typically employed in the bubblegum pop world. Problematically, though, the only direct references to sex come from the two male rappers. Mac Miller describes Grande as “a princess to the public but a freak when it’s time” in “The Way” and Big Sean explains how he “has some girls missionary” on the Lil Kim sampling “Right There”.
Holding this all together is Grande’s exceptional voice. Typically, comparisons to Mariah Carey would work against a singer, but on this debut, Grande proves that she can live up to the hype. Her mature timbre and control is balanced by a young and cute vocal affect, where she lets the hard consonants fall off at the end of words, almost as if she has a lisp. When she sings the somber piano ballad with the Wanted’s Nathan Sykes, she outshines him to a near embarrassing level. Not by oversinging, as fellow tween pop star Demi Lovato is prone to do, but by showing an impressive amount of emotional control and direction.
The obvious low point here is “Popular Song”, a duet with French quirk-pop songwriter Mika. “Popular Song”, which repurposes the chorus of “Popular” from the Steven Schwartz musical Wicked, feels unforgivably out of place on the album. Originally released in another version on Mika’s latest solo album, The Origin of Love, Ariana’s take picks up the tempo, pops up the production, and replaces Priscilla Renae’s vocals with Grande’s acrobatic performance. Though the track is good, and it reminds fans of Grande’s beginnings as a Broadway actress, it feels thematically strange as the only song not concerned with love or relationships.
Minor missteps aside, Yours Truly is ultimately an impressive debut for Grande. The fact that she’s managed by Scooter Braun and is continuing to gain exposure from her Nickelodeon show Sam and Cat, coupled, of course, with the strong material and her even stronger voice, makes it seem unlikely that Ariana Grande is going away anytime soon. And that’s definitely a good thing.