When Ariana Grande released her debut album, Yours Truly, back in 2013, it came with a clear sound and identity: cheerful, Nickelodeon-approved pop drawing heavy inspiration from '90s Mariah Carey. Grande's follow-up, 2014's My Everything, was vastly more popular but less musically focused. The rollout of her latest album, Dangerous Woman, initially seemed to be suffering the same scattershot path with a withdrawn lead single. The tracks that followed in its wake — right up to last week’s explicit “Side to Side” — were hell-bent to impress upon us that princess Grande was moving into adult terrain — latex bunny mask and all.
While Dangerous Woman is indeed a sexier record for Grande, there's a theatrical distance to her desire. Where artists like Britney Spears, Janet Jackson, and Zayn Malik have worked hard to broadcast real-life sensuality in their (calculated) moves from teen sensation to adult stardom, Grande seems to treat "dangerous woman" less as a state of being and more as one more stagey role. Perhaps she understands transition albums as what they are — a performance of a rite of passage that is especially necessary for teen TV stars and boy-band boys gone solo.
The sultry image Grande presents on Dangerous Woman is an expert performance. It even comes with an explicit thesis statement courtesy of Lil Wayne: "Good-bye to good girl," he declares on "Let Me Love You," loud enough for the cheap seats to hear. The cutesy throwback of the album’s former single “Focus” (since relegated to a Japanese bonus track) turns out to be an anomaly on this chilly pop album, in which Grande narrates a stylized tale of high-stakes desire. Songs like "Into You," "Everyday," and "Touch It," produced by Max Martin and/or his protégé Ilya, deftly deploy the sinister Scandinavian horror-movie-score sounds that propelled The Weeknd's Beauty Behind the Madness into one of last year's biggest smashes, lacing Grande's rebellious proclamations with speaker-frying bass synth drops. "Let Me Love You," the icy Lil Wayne duet, is a trip-hop-infused R&B track — think Brandy doing a Massive Attack song — glitching Grande's whispery vocals into a robotic "just let me luh-uh-uh-uh-uh-ove you" chorus. At times, on songs like "Knew Better / Forever Boy" and "Thinking Bout You," Grande presents a vocal restraint — a whispery intimacy — we rarely hear from her.
There are plenty of single-worthy hits here — see the sassy disco track "Greedy" and the bubbly, '90s pop piano-laden "Bad Decisions," which rework her nostalgic tendencies into something far less stuffy than usual. But the through line of dark, head-over-heels romance makes Dangerous Woman's tracks fit together like a confident, cinematic story. "Tonight I'm making deals with the the devil, and I know it's going to get me in trouble," Grande sings on "Side to Side." "A little bit scandalous, but baby don't let them see it," she croons like a true femme fatale on "Into You." "A little less conversation, a little more touch my body."
What Grande has always had in opposition to her younger peers is an unabashed flair for the traditionally theatrical. A former child star, she came up not through the music industry, but via Broadway — playing a tween cheerleader in the 2008 musical 13 — and later as an actress on Nickelodeon. Her music career has been sprinkled with colorful sets and go-go-booted choreography that echo the vintage stylings of Nancy Sinatra, '90s fly girls, West Side Story, and Jane Fonda's Barbarella. If Ariana Grande's music were a person, it'd be the popular type-A party girl who isn't quite cool enough to take the Audrey Hepburn poster off her bedroom wall (and sometimes you kind of love her for it).
At its best, Dangerous Woman is a chance for Grande to slicken up her theater-kid core beyond the bubblegum retro she's already mastered. Throughout the record, listeners are told, again and again, that Grande is edging out of her teen pop safety zone — never mind that she already told us the same thing two years ago with songs like "Hands On Me" and "Love Me Harder." But Grande doesn't seem to have been completely made over on this album as much as she is just naturally expanding her musical theater pop oeuvre into darker territory. The "dangerous woman" we hear on this record is just another classic role for a singer who continually looks to past icons for aesthetic inspiration. From the "James Dean" look of her lover's eyes on "Moonlight" to the "Bonnie & Clyde love" on "Bad Decisions," Dangerous Woman's fantasy of risky, sexy love is still cloaked in old-school glamour, as if Grande has cast herself in her own film noir. Her sensuality here feels purposefully melodramatic, name-dropping danger at every turn. And the soulful, orchestral ballads "Dangerous Woman," "Leave Me Lonely," and "I Don't Care" are classic Ariana Grande diva solos.
But whether the desire she outlines here is actually her own doesn't really matter. The sleekly produced, intense fantasy she delivers on Dangerous Woman works perfectly for Grande. And while the record might be a little more "adult" than her previous albums, its experimentation isn't ham-fisted or overly provocative. Proudly wearing pearls, Dangerous Woman finds a confident way to make Grande's music sexy without completely erasing her showgirl signatures.