Ariana Grande showed promise on her 2013 debut, Yours Truly – a classic case of “great voice, shame about the tunes,” overseen by Nineties R&B god Babyface. My Everything is where the 21-year-old Nickelodeon starlet grows up. It’s a confident, intelligent, brazen pop statement, mixing bubblegum diva vocals with EDM break beats. The summer smash “Break Free” sets the tone: Grande sings, “This is the part when I break free,” while German producer Zedd builds up those whisper-to-scream synths, until the bass explodes and so does Grande. Like a Natalie Imbruglia for our more pretentious times, she’s in the zone where “Torn” meets “Turn Down for What.”
Unlike most of today’s young pop royals, Grande’s star power is rooted in her Mariah Carey-esque chops as a singer. She has a more virtuosic voice than Selena Gomez, Katy Perry or nearly anyone else on the radio in 2014 – and while she’s far from the only diva-in-training to aim for Mariah’s squeaky-deaky octave-goosing frills over Whitney’s grit and growl, very few have Grande’s sensitive touch. She knows how not to oversing, even when she opens the LP with a mostly a cappella intro overdubbing herself into an En Vogue chorale.
The hyperactive hummingbird-in-a-miniskirt energy of her voice makes sense, because she’s usually singing about how all these boys, boys, boys are driving her out of her wits. Grande doesn’t have much interest in wuss ballads where she plays the victim – she’s an I’m-so-moving-on type, which is what gives her voice its emotional kick. “Break Your Heart Right Back” is a righteous manifesto for young women all over this land, as well as a reminder of why your little sister is more punk than you are.
Grande has hit-or-miss luck with rappers, but mostly misses. After klutzy cameos from Iggy Azalea and Big Sean, Childish Gambino sounds like Rakim by comparison. She makes up for it in bonus track “Bang Bang,” her perfect Max Martin throwdown with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. It fuses Nelly’s “Country Grammar” with Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go,” which is some truly twisted pop archaeology.
The only flat-out terrible song here is “Just a Little Bit of Your Heart,” a masochistic piano drooper where Grande plays the doormat who keeps taking back her no-good man every time he cheats. It doesn’t exactly fit her personality, to say the least. You can practically hear her rolling her eyes as she sings. (And this is the one Harry Styles wrote? Harry, Harry, Harry. Do yourself a favor and get some songwriting tips from Babyface, pronto.)
When Grande reaches for a more adult tone in the ace power ballad “Why Try,” she pulls it off. It’s a Ryan Tedder special in the mode of Beyoncé’s “XO” or “Halo,” with Grande contemplating grown-up heartbreak (“We been living like angels and devils”) over those nowfamiliar martial drum rolls. In clumsier hands, a song like this would turn into pure corn, but she doesn’t waste a line of it. It sounds like there’s no limit to where Ariana Grande can go from here. But as My Everything proves, she’s already a major force.