When Ariana Grande recently hosted Saturday Night Live, she played a shy Tidal intern able to mimic the singing voices of Britney Spears, Shakira, Rihanna, Celine Dion, and Whitney Houston. The sketch worked because the role played to her strengths—an impressive vocal range and dynamic delivery—and used her chameleonic tendencies for comedic effect. In terms of her own music career, Grande’s reverence for pop stars of yore occasionally causes missteps. 2014’s My Everything often felt like she was doing ’90s Top 40 karaoke, and suppressing her own style.
On her third album, Dangerous Woman, that’s not an issue. Thanks to a production and songwriting team featuring both pop svengali Max Martin and Grande’s long-time collaborator Tommy Brown, the record is built to accentuate her strengths and vocal timbre. In fact, she sounds far more confident tackling Dangerous Woman’s diffuse genres. There’s an early ’90s house throwback (“Be Alright”), flawless reggae-pop with a Nicki Minaj cameo (“Side To Side”), and the Future-featuring trap-pop gem “Everyday.” Better still are the sultry “Into You”—whose sassy finger-snaps and inky production give way to the record’s best come-on (“A little less conversation / And a little more touch my body”)—and the haunted, brooding Macy Gray duet “Leave Me Lonely.” On the latter, Grande matches Gray’s gravelly vocal weariness with a torchy, soulful performance.
Buoyed by this poise, Dangerous Woman possesses more personality than My Everything. It’s also far looser than anything else in Grande’s catalog. The horn-peppered highlight “Greedy” in particular is an exuberant R&B-pop earworm on which she has a blast indulging her inner gospel diva. But Grande sounds just as comfortable being vulnerable, as on Dangerous Woman’s title track, which is a guitar-flecked swerve reminiscent of Rihanna’s recent work, and the ’50s rock homage “Moonlight.” About the only true dud is “Sometimes,” a completely generic tune with folky acoustic guitar flourishes, and distracting electronic production and vocal effects. Otherwise, Dangerous Woman is an effortless leap forward on which Grande comes into her own as a vocalist and performer.