Ariana Grande – “My Everything”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Problem” “Bang Bang”

There are certain singers and rappers that, when they show up on a track, are automatically going to outshine the star – Beyonce, Andre 3000, Nicki Minaj. The problem with Ariana Grande is that she’s shown up by everyone. Iggy Azalea, Big Sean, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$ap Ferg and, in an excellent Deluxe Edition-only song, Juicy J and Minaj all make appearances and they all help otherwise mediocre songs excel. On the four songs where Grande stands alone (not counting an intro), she sounds like an empty copy of a different singer.

“My Everything” does have its moments, most of which being the quicker, more EDM-embracing songs. Despite my best efforts, local rap radio has forced me to love “Problem,” a song with beats bigger than Grande’s whole first album combined.  “Break Free,” with Zedd, “Hands On Me,” with A$ap Ferg and “Bang Bang,” with Juicy J and Nicki Minaj are in the same boat. They’re great, fun songs with crushing beats but inoffensive mission statements. When Grande lets loose and has some fun, the album does too. These four songs are well-positioned, too, saving bursts of energy to come up every few tracks instead of using it all up early. Of the ballads, and there are plenty, the most noteworthy one is “Love Me Harder,” collaboration with The Weeknd, which matches some great vocals with catchy beats.

The rest of the album isn’t bad – it doesn’t ask you to form any kind of opinion. Much of the album, even the better songs, goes in one ear and out the other; cheap entertainment that’s forgotten as soon as it’s over. Grande’s voice shines throughout, and it stays as bouncy and inoffensive as it can, which results in a generally fun listen. The real issue lies in Grande’s lack of identity. She can really sing, maybe even better than most other pop singers out there right now (saving you, Adele), but her ‘carefree, bubblegum’ identity was unfortunately worn out in the early-00′s. Pop singers nowadays have to establish their own, unique beings – Adele is a soulful, 60′s throwback, Lorde is a hip-hop inspired, minimalistic hip-hop basher, Lady Gaga is a theatrical and newsmaking shock. Grande is trying to establish herself as a straight pop singer, but to do that, she’s going to have to compete with the current queen – Katy Perry. And frankly, in this current music world, only one is going to be allowed continued success.

So “My Everything” isn’t bad, just forgettable and bland, and it is never sure of where it wants to be placed. Grande is still (very) young, and she’s still finding her place. Working with big names like Zedd and Minaj could still shape her place in a crowded music scene. But for now, she’s standing as a successful but unexciting singer, and her second album provides a safe, somewhat bland listen.

-By Andrew McNally

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Wiz Khalifa – “Blacc Hollywood”

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Promises” “Stayin Out All Night”

The best hip-hop albums are either wide-ranging, embracing different emotions and musical styles (“Beyonce”), or are directly consistent, pulling all of their material from the personae of the people behind it (“Straight Outta Compton”). “Blacc Hollywood” is neither of these, and it isn’t a great hip-hop album because of it. Rather, “Blacc Hollywood” starts with a call, a semi-political, semi-social trumpeting of the new ‘Blacc Hollywood,’ before quickly diverging into inconsistent weed songs and rough-childhood ballads. “Blacc Hollywood” wants desperately to have a point, but it never does.

The biggest fault with “Blacc Hollywood” is the lack of any flow. Khalifa tries to embrace different influences with the pairing of ballad “Promises” and weed song “KK” close to the beginning, but it only comes off as two disagreeing songs that don’t fit at all. It isn’t laziness – it’s ambition and ideas, without knowing how to execute them. The ideas on “Blacc Hollywood” compete rather than complement. “House in the Hills,” a ballad about not wanting to raise his son in the world he was raised in, doesn’t sound complete with the vain club banger “We Dem Boyz” popping up three songs earlier. This early disconnect faults the album’s second half, which is more consistent but less noticeable.

Indeed, Khalifa’s writing on this album isn’t that remarkable. “We Dem Boyz” has been getting airplay since it’s release in February, but there’s really nothing to the song. It’s a glorified chorus with little change for 3:45. His personal songs are honest and gut-punching, but the others are often too predictable (look no further than “Ass Drop”). Later album track “Stayin Out All Night” is helped by a huge, fuzzy, banging beat, but it’s in the middle of a string of forgettable songs.

Some guest spots do help the album – Ty Dolla $ign shows up on two different tracks, as do fellow Taylor Gang rappers Juicy J, Chevy Woods and Project Pat. Curren$y shows up on the honest “House in the Hills,” and Nicki Minaj drops a spot on the largely excellent closer, “True Colors.” (Unfortunately, a proposed collaboration with Adele was never more than an idea – how weird would that be? Bring new meaning to “Rolling in the Deep”).

So “Blacc Hollywood” isn’t Khalifa at his best. He’s more treading water – fueling a fanbase with self-serving bangers and ballads without offering anything great or consistent. It doesn’t come to a point, and it doesn’t flow like a hip-hop album should. Khalifa sounds fine on his own, but there isn’t anything noteworthy going on around him. As confused as it is average, “Blacc Hollywood” deserves a spin or two at a house party, but little more than that.

-By Andrew McNally