Here are the album reviews I wrote for the October issue of EL Magazine, which was distributed in Tokyo on September 25.
-Ariana Grande (Republic/Universal)
-Alexandra Stan (Victor)
A lot of people seem to care that former-kid-star-turned-pop-diva-upstart Ariana Grande is now more popular in Japan than Mariah Carey, and I say good for her. Not that I have anything against Mimi, but the kind of mass appeal pop that both women trade in shouldn’t be monopolized by one manufactured artist for such a long time. And in a real sense, Carey moved on from her Top 40 pop-identified persona a long time ago when she embraced hip-hop wholeheartedly. Grande is going about her evolution much more rapidly. Here she is with only her second album and already she’s jettisoned the idol trappings that made her first few singles teen gold and earned her those Mariah comparisons. An absolute professional in that her chops can’t be discounted the way, say, Britney’s were at the same point in her career, Grande was originally tagged as a ballad singer, but My Everything makes a concerted appeal to the dance market, more exactly a dance market made up of adults. Sure, 90s idol-maker Max Martin is here, but so is Zedd and Cashmere Cat, not to mention guest intrusions from the likes of A$AP Ferg, Big Sean, and Childish Gambino. To say that some of the raps sound incidental and forced doesn’t necessarily take anything away from the tracks they appear on. The guest spots are often redundant. Sean’s gambit on “Best Mistake” only highlights the fact that Grande can do very well without him, and the best songs—the sexy, grooving “Hands On Me” and the trifecta confection (Nicki Minaj & Jessie J) “Bang Bang”—are straight-up vocal showcases whose production complements rather than oversees the performances. What makes the album a pleasure from start to finish is Grande’s confidence in both her skills and her ability to get the party going. Idols rarely convey that without sounding as if they’ve got a gun to their head. Romanian dance diva Alexandra Stan manages to hold her own against the production overkill on her third album, but Eurobeat tends to have different priorities, and as a result Stan’s girlish phrasing has a canned quality thanks to all the processing it’s put through. In terms of bangers, Unlocked is more action-packed than Grande’s album. Romania seems to be a hotbed of dance diva production right now, and Stan, who has already scored a chart hit in the US, represents a sort of new vanguard, but the girlish persona and vocal affectations, while distinctive enough, can’t make up for actual engagement, and there’s a sense here of serving the EDM needs of a market that won’t be denied, which is unfortunate. “Cherry Pop” is the kind of pure confection that made 90s idol pop irresistible, but in that regard the calculation can also backfire. Is “Happy” a half-assed attempt to appeal to the Taylor Swift demographic? Nothing wrong with derivative, but divas gotta stand up for themselves. Continue reading