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Ariana Grande Is Heading Back to Number One and She’s Bringing ‘NSync With Her

The pop star deploys samples and interpolations to great effect on her new album, ‘thank u, next’

Ariana Grande performs at Wango Tango at Banc of California Stadium, in Los Angeles2018 Wango Tango - Show, Los Angeles, USA - 02 Jun 2018

Ariana Grande released her 'Thank U, Next' album at midnight.

Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP/REX/S

Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next album is all but guaranteed to debut at Number One. When it does, it will be another in a long string of commercial slam-dunks for Grande.

More surprising, the album’s success also represents a return to the charts for ‘NSync and Wendy Rene. That’s because “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” interpolates a verse from ‘NSync’s jittery “It Makes Me Ill,” while “Fake Smile” borrows from Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” a Sixties soul record that has been far more successful as a sample source than it ever was on its own.

Grande is not the only one doing this sort of savvy musical recycling: Pop and rock acts appear to be both sampling and interpolating — soldering a previously-used lyric or melody onto a new track — more frequently. “I hear a lot of interpolating on pop radio today … it’s more in your face,” said Joe Khajadourian, from production duo the Futuristics, in an interview last year. 

There’s a simple explanation for this: the commercial surge of hip-hop and R&B.  Those genres have been comfortable sampling for decades — rap pioneered the practice in the mainstream — and they are doing enviable numbers on your streaming platform of choice. Pop stars are following suit. “With hip-hop becoming the dominant musical form, pop music is reflecting that,” Jeff Vaughn, VP of A&R at Artist Partners Group, told Rolling Stone.

Grande also has her own personal history with in-your-face samples. On her debut album, Yours Truly, she was consciously channeling Nineties R&B with help from legends like Babyface. She built “Lovin’ It” around a riff from Mary J. Blige’s “Real Love,” while “The Way” used the same Brenda Russell sample as Big Pun’s hit “I’m Not a Player” to great effect. On the My Everything track “Break Your Heart Right Back,” she borrowed Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” by way of Notorious B.I.G.’s “Mo Money Mo Problems.” (This one was produced by the R&B aces Pop & Oak.)

But two things happened. First, as Grande became more successful, she work less with producers from rap and R&B. After connecting with Swedish Top 40 superhero Max Martin and his acolytes for the first time on My Everything, she worked heavily with them on Dangerous Woman and Sweetener. They don’t come from a sampling tradition, so that technique faded into the background. (Pharrell also helped with Sweetener, but he didn’t push samples.)

And in the last few years, if Grande did use a sample or interpolation, that song was not pushed as a single. Case in point: “Break Your Heart Right Back.” The Sweetener track “Goodnight n Go” uses lyrics from an Imogen Heap song, but it wasn’t picked as a standalone release.

That strategy changed in January when Grande released the single “7 Rings,” which opens with a blatant callback to Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things” before dumping a truck-full of trap hi-hats on top of the Broadway melody. (Two other artists, Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy, also accused Grande of borrowing from them without giving credit.) Ted Chapin, who handles the Rodgers & Hammerstein catalog, was taken aback by the audacity of the fusion. “Our first reaction was, ‘Whoa!'” he told Rolling Stone.

While “7 Rings” pulls from a well-known source, “Fake Smile” aims for the more esoteric by sampling Wendy Rene’s debut single, “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” The track was originally released on the famous Southern soul label Stax in 1964. But it never became a major hit, and Rene left the music business not long after.

“After Laughter” has been rejuvenated by sampling: The track was lifted for the Wu-Tang Clan’s insta-classic debut album, as well as songs by a young Kendrick Lamar, Alicia Keys and Metro Boomin. In Rene’s morose original, the singer struggles to keep her emotions hidden: “My friends all say, don’t try to hold it in/But I can’t let that guy know how I feel.” In “Fake Smile,” Grande goes a step further than Rene, reaching a point where she doesn’t give a damn anymore. “If I’m hurt, I ain’t gon’ lie about it,” she sings.

The most potent act of recycling on Thank U, Next is its last: On the bridge of “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” Grande adopts the cadence and lyrical structure of ‘NSync in “It Makes Me Ill.” The original track, co-written by Kandi from the R&B group XScape, overflows with jealousy; it’s a tale of envy turning quickly to malice. Grande gives that a blasé twist. Here there’s no illness, just a chance to escape dullness. 

“Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” is interpolation at its finest — Grande takes a snippet of an overly agitated non-single and transforms it into a commanding, sure-fire hit. For pop acts, this “is something we’ll be seeing more and more of,” the songwriter Jamie Hartman predicted recently. “People are scouring for old melodies and ways of flipping them – ’cause it works.”

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