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Hits And Misses: Ariana Grande, Rostam, And Justin Bieber's Passive-Aggression

Our critical roundtable disembowels the hits of today and tomorrow

Every week, MTV’s writers and critics assemble and weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Ira Madison III, Molly Lambert, Meaghan Garvey, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Hazel Cills, Jessica Hopper, Molly Beauchemin, Eric Torres, Carvell Wallace, Sasha Geffen, Simon Vozick-Levinson, and David Turner.

Anna Wise, "BitchSlut"

Lambert: I always wanted backpacker rap and riot grrrl to cross the streams more but now that it’s happening it makes me feel weird. I think it’s because I don’t love it but I feel guilty about that. It’s a good recapitulation of Allie Sheedy’s “It’s a trap” speech from The Breakfast Club. It’s like a “Same Love” about slut-shaming. Everything she’s saying is true but I want it to be funnier or stranger or something. But I’m uncomfortable with earnestness, which is on me.

Wallace: People were telling me this low-key bangs (translation: low-key bangs is apparently what it’s called whenever a white girl is on a track that actually mid-key bangs). Producer B. Lewis, who I typically don’t love a whole great deal, keeps this one pretty sharp and to the point with a nice, big beat that’s meaty enough to get your attention, but doesn’t hijack the track. Which is appropriate because on this one the message is obviously the thing. Is it mindblowing? Not really. But seems like a lot of people need to hear it, still. Anna Wise has flows in her own way, and I like that she looks like someone who might friend request you on Facebook because you have, like, four mutuals. It’s one thing to get empowerment messages from someone who employs a staff of 15 stylists, but quite another to get them from someone you might know? Also, Christian McBride apparently plays bass on it, so I guess a bunch of black smooth jazz dads are about get feminist woke, too.

Hopper: I like this song on paper more than in practice. That said, would be OK with Anna Wise being the white hip-hop Tori Amos for the next couple years.

Madison III: I came away liking this because I expected it to be terrible, I guess. I really like her flow and there's a reason Kendrick threw her on To Pimp a Butterfly. It's got me interested in what else she might bring to the table musically, so as a calling card for what's to come, it totally works. The song itself will probably only preach to the choir and be shared on sites with the same train of thought, but whatever, it's not egregiously simplistic like "White Privilege II."

Ariana Grande, "Dangerous Woman"

Turner: This is one of the worst James Bond themes I’ve heard in awhile. This particular kind of retroism stylistic decision is something I don’t enjoy from Ariana. Who exactly wants a pop star in 2016 to make music that recalls the '50s/'60s at their most bland?

Beauchemin: Isn’t that something that she is actually going for, though? She’s a protégé of both Broadway and Disney musical traditions, which is pretty much the dullest recreation of the 1950s out there, no? I agree with David though; I would like this chorus to soar just a little bit higher, and for the stakes to be just a little bit bigger. Passion is always becoming when you have this kind of vocal range.

Geffen: It’s definitely retro compared to “Problem” and “Focus,” but I like how she finds ways to corrode the obvious template she’s settling into. Those little voice distortions at the end? The so-slick-it’s-creepy production? All that speaks to me as something interested not just in mining the past but recontextualizing the archetypes that still shape how we hear music and see celebrity.

Garvey: Everything she’s done since My Everything feels so regressive! That album’s whole thing, I thought, was stepping beyond the cutesy retro shit (which she totally owned back in 2013, but would be creepy if she kept it up forever). But I will take an OG Ron C Chopped Not Slopped edit of this ASAP, please.

Hopper: I feel like a lot of the transitions we are seeing in pop’s female solo artists are the result of folks trying to figure out where they fit in a post-Lana Del Rey world. That’s all I hear here. But regressive backdoor-ing bad girl is like, not the sell line on Ari.

Lambert: Whoops, I like it. At least it’s got a vibe, as opposed to “Focus” which sounded focus-grouped. I am waiting for trip-hop Ariana Grande and I will wait forever if need be. The vocoder-y flourishes at the end of this make it interesting and sound a little bit like E.L.O.

Cills: Oh my god, both Sasha and Molly made me realize that what I REALLY want from Ariana Grande is to dig her heels deeper into her demon-hunting goth persona and make a Portishead record.


Wallace: Interesting how different this felt for me watching on SNL from listening here. On SNL it was deeply powerful because half of the Ariana Grande Magic Trick is “watch as this child-sized person has lungs the size of Kansas,” and this is a belter’s song. That performance had that thing you love from big singers where it seems like they’re about to explode and it makes you want to explode along with them. (I may or may not have lip-synched to it and danced around my living room. So what? Mind your business.) Point is the recorded track somehow feels compressed and crushed by comparison. Flat. I don’t mind the song. It’s fine by me if people want to take a form that works — in this case slow burn passion blues — and do it up. Thirding Ariana Portisgrande for the win.

Willis-Abdurraqib: Ariana Grande is too talented to be as boring as she often is. I’m often half-asleep and/or waiting for the big moment with her. I think this is because I got so caught up in the really odd, early-career Mariah Carey comparisons, so I keep waiting for her to do something as exciting as “Fantasy.” Which isn’t fair. Like everyone else here, I’m looking forward to the evolution of Ariana Grande, taking the stage in a hooded cloak, growling into a mic while 2,000 drums sound behind her.

Madison III: I'm so tired of her and this ditty doo-wop Little Shop of Horrors vibe she periodically dips back into. You're right, she's never really earned those Mariah Carey comparisons, because she hasn't hit us with something really vocally pop and R&B hitting like "Honey" yet. She was on the edge of it with My Everything, which had a lot of really great tracks, but this is two steps back.

Rostam, "Gravity Don't Pull Me"

Geffen: Like, what tempo even is this song? Big fan of Slow Jams Undercut By Rapid Arpeggios Desperately Trying To Break Into A Higher BPM, my gosh, the guilt the anxiety the shame.

Vozick-Levinson: This sounds like someone trying to sing a Miguel song at the end of a very long, emotionally fraught karaoke night. Like a heartbroken sigh, but sexy. Does that sound like a bad thing? I love it.

Beauchemin: I like this song, but these crazy arpeggiated beats are a little dizzying for me — like an audible car sickness that makes me yearn for stable ground. I don’t mean that as shade, necessarily, I just feel like the experimentalism here is a little forced — I guess this makes him the George in the post-Vampire Weekend/Beatles comparison.

Torres: This kind of frazzled production has always worked well with Rostam’s whispery voice. I like the chaos around it — I see how it can get distracting or dizzying, but it also kind of emphasizes how pretty and grounding his voice can be in this setting. This song sounds like a more polished version of his work in Discovery, another VW offshoot I really loved that was also endearingly all over the place. And while it’s sort of a silly thing to be happy about in 2016, I’m always here for male pop musicians using ‘he’ pronouns in love songs.

Wallace: I’d like to see where this goes — this thing of telescoping tempos in a dreamy mood track. Also he said “he” in a love song so haters can eat a bag far as I’m concerned.

Gwen Stefani, "Misery"

Beauchemin: I’m not one to play the “ageism” card, but I’m a little bummed out by all these increasingly schoolgirl-esque Gwen Stefani songs. I get that she’s in love with Blake Shelton or whatever but I feel like she’s losing her edge with some of this bubblegum rhetoric à la “hurry up, come save me." I say this as a DIEHARD No Doubt fan: There is a difference between the ironic punch behind lyrics like "Oh, I’m just a girl, all pretty and petite," “sappy, pathetic little me," and Stefani’s latter-day “doodling on a notebook during gym class” girl-bop. I think “Misery” is catchy, but it’s also completely anodyne and not nearly as catchy as “Make Me Like You”; unless the production is over-the-top infectious, I prefer my Gwen Stefani lyrics with more teeth.

Lambert: Gwen has always had that forever-a-little-girl thing. I respect her total refusal to stop being such a teen. I wish she would lean harder into those Whatever Happened To Baby Jane? vibes but I get why she won’t. Great pop is built on the promise of the backseat makeout, and the best Gwen songs channel that hard. Even with No Doubt, she was always obsessing about the Disney princess fantasy life and the hard reality that it doesn’t really exist. I also think “Make Me Like You” is a million times better “Misery,” which immediately fell out of my head.

Madison III: I agree with "Make Me Like You" being the way better song. This one sounds like a leftover track from Selena Gomez's latest album, which is fine, but it's just a little too cutesy. I prefer Gwen when she blends dark and cutesy, and while I'm a big No Doubt fan as well, I love her solo stuff. If everything she does could have the chill, haunting vibe of "Cool" then she'd really have something going here.

Justin Bieber, "Insecurities"

Cills: Ah, yes, exactly what I want right now is a bummer acoustic jam from Bieber about trying to fix a girl’s “insecurities” (he, unfortunately, never really gets more specific than that in this song). He’s done this song before, in better words, on the light diss track “Love Yourself,” and at least that song gave us Biebs singing the beautiful lyric that is “I’ve been so caught up in my job, didn’t see what’s going on.” This song is just so grossly earnest and vague (“I want to give you everything that you need”) that it plays like he’s trying to pen a Dove “Real Beauty” campaign. Dude, you’ve already written bangers, leave this kind of stuff to Ed Sheeran. I like Bieber better on Purpose, where he’s the one looking to be saved by girls, not be their savior. I grade this song to be neither “WOKE” or “BAE.”

Vozick-Levinson: "Anyway, here's 'Wonderwall.'"

Lambert: “Love Yourself” is like Bieber singing in the mirror, right? Because otherwise it is RICH for him to criticize anyone for being vain when half his Instagram pictures are of him half-naked. “Insecurities” is the song he supposedly is performing in character as Unplugged-era Kurt Cobain after premiering it in Seattle. Oof.

Willis-Abdurraqib: I feel like this is the old Biebs that I never wanted back. Once you deliver a timeless banger like “Where Are Ü Now” and a brilliantly crafted, four-minute subtweet like “Love Yourself,” it’s hard to go back to wanting to save girls by being their boyfriend. Biebs thinks he’s me from the years 2002-2006, except he doesn’t have to be. He’s given us too many hits to do this.

Hopper: If “Where Are Ü Now” is Bieber’s “Heart-Shaped Box,” then “Insecurities” is basically his Candlebox moment. I just want him to find the producer that will save him from these bad moves, and chop his plaintive emo ideas into something textural and punctuating.

Bebe Rexha feat. Nicki Minaj, "No Broken Hearts"

Garvey: Did you guys miss Bebe Rexha, of the Indie Girl Voice on G-Eazy’s “Me, Myself & I” from last week? It turns out not even a Nicki Minaj verse can save her new single, which is essentially a shitty, sleepy club remake of Drake and PARTYNEXTDOOR’s “Preach” (which was probably the best song on If You’re Reading This!). Nicki at her most phoned-in is still preferable to almost any other conceivable guest spot, but this strikes me as one of her laziest in years. If she’s gonna recycle flows and punchlines from back in her mixtape days, let’s bring back when she rapped about putting her pussy on stuff.

Vozick-Levinson: This song promised me “No Broken Hearts,” so I was surprised to find it an extreme bummer. I just imagined Biggie’s mom hearing the uncomfortably chipper reference to “Sky’s the Limit," and now I need to listen to both discs of Life After Death to cleanse my mind. I don’t have that kind of time, Bebe.

Hopper: I had to re-listen to this song three times to remember I had already listened to it. I would stop paying attention while it was playing it’s so bad.

Madison III: I liked her on that G-Eazy track and I also liked her with dark hair. Now she's doing a platinum blonde Rita Ora thing and sounding like she's here to remind you that Iggy is not currently the worst rapper in music. I feel like Cher Lloyd would've killed these rap-sung verses, but this is beyond generic and kind of painful to listen to. And Nicki. Nicki. How much did you earn for this verse you left on Bebe's voicemail in the 20 seconds it took for you to walk from your driveway and reach your bed to go to sleep?

Torres: This is so, so boring. Nicki on autopilot is fine with me, but I had not even heard of Bebe Rexha until this moment, and I’ve already basically forgotten her. Cher Lloyd would have definitely done this better. This could have just been the subpar Nicki verse repeated a few times and it would have been better. In conclusion: do better.