Image: Instagram Halfway into 2016, with Rihanna, Kanye, Kendrick and Beyoncé ascendant, Ariana Grande seems more like the least dangerous popstar alive. Butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth, right? So when last July, leaked security footage showed her licking an unbought donut, sarcastically declaring “I hate America”, it was hard not to laugh. Her publicists couldn’t have engineered a more perfectly harmless controversy if they’d tried. It didn’t tank her immaculate image; if anything, it went a long way towards humanising her. With any luck, Dangerous Woman, her third album, will have even half as much impact as Donutgate. Now that Ariana Grande’s a household name, she’s less concerned with actively courting pop radio. Gone are the cutesy doo-wop flourishes of her 2013 debut Yours Truly, or the hints at EDM on 2014’s My Everything. Instead, Dangerous Woman doubles down on every imaginable variation on contemporary R&B. Modern pop albums, typically recorded with dozens of producers and co-writers, too often sound like an identity crisis. Over just three tracks, Dangerous Woman goes from “Greedy”‘s Prince-via-Gwen Stefani funk, to the Macy Gray torch song duet “Leave Me Lonely”, to “Everyday”, an alt-R&B track with a Future verse - but hell, it works. Grande’s voice, mixed front-and-centre, holds it all together. For a genre that’s so talked about, “contemporary R&B” is rarely defined - what does it even mean? Modern R&B has its origins in disco, funk and soul, but it differs in sound, and crucially, motivation. Soul music, which stems from gospel, is implicitly spiritual, but all R&B is implicitly about sex. Marvin Gaye was the quintessential soul singer, but even his most seductive songs - “Let’s Get It On”, “Sexual Healing” - have a devotional quality. But Prince was the opposite; the horniness that’s all over “Little Red Corvette” is buried within “Purple Rain”, too. Prince didn’t just define the drum machines and synths of modern R&B, he made sex the subtext of the entire genre. But there’s nothing raunchy about Ariana Grande. Whether it’s bubblegum pop or post-Weeknd alt-R&B, she sings everything with the same head-in-the-clouds joy. It’s never more awkward than on “Let Me Love You”, an ode to post-breakup sex where her gentle vocals are completely derailed by Lil Wayne’s phoned-in double entendres. Drake and Rihanna, those two are not.
Still, it all comes back to that voice. Listening to her sing “Dangerous Woman” on a soundstage, we finally get to hear her voice’s full, unaccompanied swell, from whisper to belt. It’s a rare thing - delicate, luxurious, and utterly confident. Most divas sing theatrically, in a way that draws attention to just how hard they’re working, but Grande never breaks a sweat. There’s no ego in her voice - in fact, she’s chronically incapable of oversinging. She always serves the song, first and foremost. Ironically, it makes you want to hear the whole album a cappella. What Grande’s still missing is songs as malleable as her voice. Modern pop production tends to be cold, built around mechanical synths and beats. That works for some - but Grande’s too often the lone human element in her own music. It makes you wish for a rhythm section with the finesse to match her voice. In another life - or maybe in five years’ time - she’d make an extraordinary jazz or musical theatre vocalist. But as a popstar, she’s still missing that key collaborator, the Nile Rodgers to her Diana Ross. Though pop superproducer Max Martin contributes to just under half of Dangerous Woman’s tracks, he’s not the one. Seriously, what’s Mark Ronson doing these days? Dangerous Woman isn’t all that dangerous or womanly. It won’t inspire legions of thinkpieces, and nor should it. Even so, it’s odd how no one’s pointed out that “Be Alright” cribs the chorus of Kendrick’s “Alright”. His chorus, already iconic, is a rallying cry, but Grande’s variation - “we’re gonna be alright” - is soothing. It’s easily the best song on the album - for how deftly it nods to ‘90s deep house, and for the little rasp in her voice we’ve never heard before. All across Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande reinvents R&B in her own image, so gently you might not even notice.