Ariana Grande: My Everything review – every so often a little shard of personality pierces the sheen

Ariana Grande

In pop, there are "good" girls and "bad" girls. Good and bad (not to mention "troubled") are, of course, lazy and tiresome pigeonholes in which to stuff female artists.

They come with assumptions about image, who makes better pop and who is in control of the decision-making. For the record, both whip-smart (good) Taylor Swift and heavy-lidded (bad) Rihanna make for excellent pop stars.

Ariana Grande is a good girl who shows little sign of being anyone's doormat. Until her recent earworm of a global smash hit, Problem (featuring Iggy Azalea), those born a few years before the new millennium would have probably struggled to recognise the Florida popstrel. Now she is the breakout singer of the summer and releasing her second album.

The 21-year-old crept up the ranks of Nickelodeon, retracing the path of the Disney cannon fodder (Timberlake, Spears, Aguilera) a generation before her. Grande starred in two hit kids' TV shows until last year, when she released a debut album, Yours Truly. She could run up and down octaves like a kid on the stairs, earning her instant "mini-Mariah" comparisons. The music, too, was orthodox retro pop-soul. It was all grown-up and house-trained. Polarising crudely, it was everything the "bad" Miley Cyrus was not.

Still aesthetically closer to Audrey Hepburn than a pole-dancer, Grande is, none the less, swiftly becoming a more versatile pop offering. That hit – Problem – has everything: a top-of-the-range vocal that recalls the breathless R&B of yesteryear (and, specifically, Amerie's wonderful 1 Thing) – a nagging sax loop and a timely guest vocal from ubiquitous rapper Azalea (a "bad" girl, balancing out the yin and yang). Rapper Big Sean whispers what Grande is thinking but can't say: "I got one less problem without ya."

Similarly, Grande's recent collaboration with Jessie J and Nicki Minaj, the persuasive Bang Bang, packs more decades-old references (the 2004 cover of Lady Marmalade by Christina Aguilera, Lil' Kim, Pink and Mya) and features the line "you need a good girl to blow your mind". The biggest departure of all from Grande's previous aesthetic is Break Free. It's a blatant hi-NRG, EDM-citing attempt to win fans on the dancefloor, a strange land where the baby-faced, workaholic Grande remains a stranger. In the excellently camp video, Grande stars as a Barbarella upgrade who fires rockets out of her breasts.

The rest of this album, caught somewhere between lovelorn lady-music and intimations of a sex life, cannot live up to the simple pleasures in the singles. Every so often, a little shard of personality pierces the sheen. Featuring an interjection by Childish Gambino, Break Your Heart Right Back finds the song's protagonist losing out to a love rival. It's a boy, a fact underlined by a sample of I'm Coming Out by Diana Ross. More intriguing is Love Me Harder, where the saturated, mid-tempo atmospherics stand out. Turns out that glacial R&B man The Weeknd is involved. His own sleaze quotient is radically toned down here, but this remains sophisticated stuff, where Grande surprisingly holds her own.

It doesn't last. My Everything is one of those records in which le tout pop is invested: producers Max Martin, Shellback, David Guetta, Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco, scores of others. Even One Direction's Harry Styles has a writing credit, on the predictable exercise in swelling piano, Just a Little Bit of Your Heart.

Song after song goes by far too slickly, showcasing Grande's good girl technical ability and her songwriters' hit-making formulae at the expense of lasting memories. Grande's defaults are sweet nothings and gymnastic melodics. It remains significant that My Everything opens on Intro, an introductory melisma.

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Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kitty Empire, for The Observer on Sunday 24th August 2014 09.00 Europe/London

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