“Ain’t you ever seen a princess be a bad bitch?” asks Ariana Grande on her third LP, Dangerous Woman. If she’s talking about licking doughnuts, well, yeah, anyone with an Internet connection is familiar. She poses the question on the bubbly “Bad Decisions,” which seems to reference her infamous 2015 eff-you to health codes by blaming a boy for all the “stupid things” she’s done lately. But while pop stars often atone for transgressions through song—just ask Justin Bieber—Grande wants to test the limits, not apologize. And that’s the best, baddest thing about Dangerous Woman.
Her follow-up to 2014’s My Everything alternates between those princess tunes (plush ballads and girl-group throwbacks) and those bad-bitch bangers, full of blush-inducing come-ons. Grande, 22, scopes out the meat market on “Let Me Love You” (featuring Lil Wayne), gets hooked on a guy on “Everyday” (featuring Future), and makes the first move on the stunning “Into You” (featuring lots of sexual tension). With grown-up lyrics like “A little less conversation, and a little more touch my body,” she flaunts her sense of humor, which critics accused her of lacking until a March SNL gig showed otherwise.
Complaints about a personality deficiency have also been lobbed at Grande’s music. My Everything suffered for trying to be everything; it touched on so many styles that she appeared to have no point of view. Here the singer proves those haters wrong: With a streamlined team of hitmakers such as Max Martin, she pulls off pop, R&B, reggae, and house—all without overextending herself or pandering to trends.
While the hooks may not be as irresistible as her 2014 double whammy of “Problem” and “Break Free,” Grande compensates by having something meaningful to say with that jaw-dropping voice—one of the most exquisite in pop today. Ex–child stars, looking to shed G-rated images, tend to stop at F-bombs and sex boasts, yet this former Nickelodeon idol uses her platform to challenge the expectations facing young female celebrities. Sometimes that means calling out sexist interview questions and social-media slut-shamers; on Dangerous Woman, that takes the form of songs about sexual liberation and the pressures of a 24/7 spotlight. “I used to feel so obligated to be so much more,” she sings on “I Don’t Care,” “but if I can’t be me then [what the] f—-’s the point?” For Grande, giving up on pleasing everybody has only made her more magnetic. B+