Ariana Grande, “Thank U, Next” (Republic)
No current pop star is more adept at stoking and channeling swells of online fan curiosity than Grande. It is savvy gamesmanship, and an appropriately modern approach to pop superstardom in the age of social media and streaming. And yet that flirtation with tabloid ubiquity is the least interesting aspect of Grande’s fifth album, which has some hiccups but is still her most musically flexible release to date.
A pure vocal talent, Grande hasn’t always been in close dialogue with the rest of pop music. That has changed now. There is less deadening polish on the vocal production, and Grande demonstrates a new comfort toying with style and approach.
That’s clearest on the album standout, “Bloodline,” which communicates a cruel sentiment — “don’t want you in my bloodline” — with disarming casualness. Produced by pop hitmaker Max Martin, “Bloodline” has some of Grande’s most in-the-pocket singing.
“Thank U, Next” can be split between the songs produced by Martin and the rest. The Martin songs are crisp: “Bad Idea” has the urgency and cool of late 1980s pop. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” — which includes a riff on ‘N Sync’s “It Makes Me Ill” — is so bulbous and tart that it sounds jolly.
It’s in the other songs, however, that Grande takes her most intriguing leaps. She has learned to contort her huge voice into the clipped cadences that have defined the hip-hop mainstream over the last couple of years. On “7 Rings,” she’s so convincing with her flow that there was wild disagreement online as to which rapper she was ripping off.
There are other curious musical choices — the jubilation and saccharine taste of the hook of “NASA” recalls K-pop. And Grande hasn’t totally disconnected from the clarity and spaciousness of her early music, heard here on the pristine “Make Up.” That these varying choices all sound comfortable together is the real sign of progress on “Thank U, Next.”
Jon Caramanica, New York Times
Florida Georgia Line, “Can’t Say I Ain’t Country” (Big Machine)
Florida Georgia Line protests a lot here. “You can say you don’t like my truck,” Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley sing in the title track. “You can say that I talk and I dress all funny, but you can’t say I ain’t country.”
That’s the kind of projection and misdirection we see a lot these days. While few people complain about trucks or joke about the way Nashville folks talk or dress, there are probably way more who question — rightly or wrongly — how country Florida Georgia Line is.
After all, this duo teamed with pop star Bebe Rexha for “Meant to Be,” which topped the country charts for 50 weeks with its mix of pop ballad, hip-hop beats and country twang. They have collaborated with the Backstreet Boys, EDM producer Alesso and Hailee Steinfeld. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but walking away from it, now that people are starting to tire of the “bro country” domination they helped build, seems a bit calculated.
“Can’t Say I Ain’t Country” is well-crafted, especially when Florida Georgia Line adopts bits of alt-folk into “Simple.” But the craftsmanship is marred with weird ideas like the collaboration with R&B singer Jason Derulo for the country-soul mash-up “Women,” an ode to “beautiful women, we’re all better off with them right by our side.”
Glenn Gamboa, Newsday
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