“Don’t need permission. Made my decision to test my limits. Cause it’s my business. God as my witness, start what I finished. Don’t need no hold up. Taking control of this kind of moment. I’m locked and loaded, completely focused. My mind is open.”
These are the lines that open up the title track on Ariana Grande’s newest album and they serve to be a quasi-manifesto for the album as a whole. “Dangerous Woman” is the first official single taken from Grande’s third full-length studio release Dangerous Woman – the album’s actual first single, “Focus,” doesn’t appear on the tracklist at all – and it’s the perfect single choice to launch this particular era. As Grande’s third album in almost as many years, Dangerous Woman is also her most daring (or, dare I say dangerous) work to date. So, when she declares that she has “made the decision to test my limits,” it’s not a joke: Dangerous Woman is Ariana at her peak, sure, but it’s also the work of an artist that will never be content settling for more of the same.
Even before Dangerous Woman, Ariana Grande was always destined to be a special kind of pop star. Back when she was still being forced to dye her hair bright red every week for her super-popular role as Cat Valentine on both Nickelodeon’s Victorious and Sam & Cat, Grande continually went on record saying that, although acting was “fun,” music would always be her first passion. This desire to make music has always seemed genuine – from the moment that she expressed an interest in recording an R&B album at 14 – and that same feeling has carried over throughout Grande’s career. Even though she’s undoubtedly a pop star at this point, the music itself still seems central to her success. And that seems to be, in large part, why everyone wants to root for her.
While many of her contemporaries have seen the quality of their music fluctuate alongside their overall popularity, Grande has had a pretty consistent uphill trajectory. Her first album, 2013’s Yours Truly, was one of the most confident, sound-defining debuts of the last few years — effectively blending doo-wop, soul, and hip hop-influenced pop to make a sound that was just as fresh as it was familiar. Its followup, 2014’s My Everything, upped the ante even more, taking those earlier sounds to turbo levels by combining them with rave-ready beats. Songs like the Zedd-produced “Break Free” have reached anthemic levels by subverting the quickly tiring electropop trend on its head — it pushed the genre to its limits so that the sound was somehow more progressive than it was trite. By the time the My Everything era had ended, it seemed like Ariana was unstoppable.
In many ways, she still is — particularly if Dangerous Woman is to be taken as a sign of what we can expect from her in the future. Where Yours Truly sometimes failed to excite because of its lack of upbeat jams and My Everything sometimes failed to offer any respite from its nonstop fist-pumping rhythms, Dangerous Woman seems like the best of both worlds. There is no dearth of catchy dance jams — second single “Into You” has “club smash” written all over its pulsing bass line — but there are also enough slow-burners to keep any listener still satisfied off the dancefloor.
And, of course, there will always be that voice. When the most frustrating part of your career is having your voice compared to Mariah Carey’s too often, you can be sure that the voice in question is something truly noteworthy. Nevertheless, the extent of Grande’s vocal talent can go ignored. When she’s backed by electronic synth-heavy beats (“Let Me Love You,” for example) means that she can sometimes be restricted from really showing off what she’s capable of. But, for every “Let Me Love You,” there is also a “Leave Me Lonely” — a mid-tempo duet with Macy Gray, where Grande stretches through each of her registers during the punchy chorus. The song alone is a testament to the fact that she very well may have one of the best voices in the industry right now.
Grande has also always been good with collaborators: Yours Truly found the singer partnering with rapper Mac Miller for an adorable contribution to her breakout smash “The Way” and My Everything paired her with Childish Gambino so he could rap about being G-A-Y (even though he isn’t.) The latter album also saw her grow into a sexy chanteuse with The Weeknd on “Love Me Harder,” but it also overdid the guest spots. Dangerous Woman seems much more like a self-assured effort, spreading only four features across the album’s 15 tracks – and they’re all great. “Side to Side” is a standout, a funky island reggae-inflected track that features Nicki Minaj flipping between her patois-singing and take-no-prisoners bar-spitting. “Let Me Love You” is equally alluring, a highly sex-charged anthem that features Lil Wayne returning to “old-school Wayne” (in Ariana’s own words) to seduce the singer.
And seduction could be a great way of describing the danger of Dangerous Woman, as the album is surely her sexiest and most sexual yet. The whole thing seems like an extension of the sexuality she began to embrace on My Everything‘s “Love Me Harder.” On “Touch It,” Ariana fights to keep a boy that she loves because “ain’t nobody gonna touch it” like he does. And “Everyday” finds Ariana partnering up with everyone’s favorite rapper, Future, to declare that “he give me that good shit that make me not quit.” But she hasn’t entirely abandoned love for lust, either. “Sometimes” and “Moonlight” are both exemplars of the cutesy lovesick songs we can expect to find on every Ariana album for the rest of her career.
A little more than halfway through the album comes a song called “I Don’t Care.” It’s clearly the biggest flashback to her earliest days as a budding pop star with Yours Truly: The track is laid back and features Ariana singing over a D’Angelo-era R&B beat, easily recalling earlier hits like “Honeymoon Avenue” and “Baby I.” It’s funny to think about the fact that Ariana said this was the last song she recorded for the album because it functions as a gentle fuck-you to the haters. Maintaining that she “used to feel so obligated to be so much more” and that she “used to let some people tell me how to live and how to be,” Ariana uses the song to make an announcement: “I don’t care about it anymore.” As she “laughs about the things that used to be important” to her, Ariana assures her audience that her career, and her music, and everything about her image is under her own control. Although the song doesn’t close the album, we can take its “final addition” status as being Ariana’s closing statement for Dangerous Woman: Ariana is a woman. She is dangerous. And she doesn’t care what you think.
After all, as she says right before the beat drops in one of the album’s standout tracks, “Bad Decisions”: Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?