In-your-face production. Cameos from high-profile rappers. A lead single about how, lingering attraction (and proper grammar) be damned, she'd have "one less problem without you." There's lots of newfound swagger on Ariana Grande's "My Everything," which came out Monday, just less than a year after her successful 2013 debut, "Yours Truly."
But perhaps nothing speaks to Grande's empowering ascent from B-list Nickelodeon player to worldwide pop star like the fact that she didn't even put "Bang Bang" on her album. A boisterous mod-soul collaboration with Nicki Minaj and Jessie J, that top 10 summer hit is featured as a mere bonus track on the deluxe edition of "My Everything," as though the singer were so flush with material that she could afford to treat sure things like scraps.
Turns out that's more or less the case. As strong a pop record as any so far this year, Grande's second disc keeps offering up delights, from the implied raunch of the looped saxophone lick in "Problem" to the surging dance beats of "One Last Time" and "Break Free" to "Love Me Harder," a darker (and more fully realized) R&B jam than anyone probably expected from a 21-year-old singer once known for her endless supply of pastel princess dresses. She's even got a song that samples "Mo Money Mo Problems" by the Notorious B.I.G. and the song it sampled, Diana Ross' "I'm Coming Out."
Like all kiddie-TV veterans working to evolve beyond their squeaky-clean backgrounds, Grande uses the top-shelf tunes here to try out various adult themes, as in the moody "Best Mistake," featuring her maybe-boyfriend Big Sean, and "Love Me Harder," filled with double entendres about rough sex; that one also has a single entendre -- delivered by her reliably creepy duet partner, the Weeknd -- about feeling "the pressure between your hips."
Yet what's truly grownup about "My Everything" isn't the bedroom talk but the confidence with which Grande expresses herself, a real shift from her charmingly tentative manner on "Yours Truly." That record, released while Grande was still doing time on Nickelodeon's since-canceled "Sam & Cat," felt like an earnest experiment; now you get the sense of someone indubitably in it to win it. Basically, she went from "Meet Miley Cyrus" to "Bangerz" in the space of 11 months.
That means more convincing vocals -- check out her unexpectedly throaty tone in "Be My Baby" -- as well as a much wider stylistic path. Where "Yours Truly" stuck fairly closely to the sound of '90s-era R&B (thanks in part to Grande's partnership with the producer and songwriter Babyface, one of that era's principal architects), "My Everything" pulls freely from hip-hop and EDM and the sparkly uplift of songs like Beyoncé's "Halo" and Kelly Clarkson's "Already Gone." Ryan Tedder, who co-wrote both those hits, helped pen this album's "Why Try," while Grande's other collaborators include Benny Blanco, David Guetta and, crucially, the teen-pop god Max Martin.
It's partly Martin's handiwork that you hear in "Bang Bang," which climbed a spot this week on the Hot 100 following Grande's performance on Sunday's MTV Video Music Awards. But what leaves an impression is Grande herself, deeply cheerful yet with guns blazing, an innocent newcomer no more.
3 stars out of 4