Last year’s underwhelming “Focus,” a transparent rehash of her star-making smash “Problem,” was dropped from the tracklist of Ariana Grande’s Dangerous Woman, but the album still has one eye fixed squarely on the past. “He’s giving me Elvis with some James Dean in his eyes,” Grande sings chastely on the opening track, “Moonlight,” a doo-wop throwback. Though the album immediately shifts gears with the decidedly more contemporary title track, a sultry waltz in which the singer implores her man to “test [her] limits,” assuring him that, underneath, every 21-century woman is a “bad girl,” there are smart, unexpected nods to yesteryear throughout the remainder of Dangerous Woman.
If not employed with purpose, the recent trend of pitched-down vocals can be irksome. On the minimalist deep-house banger “Be Alright,” the modern technique is cleverly used to approximate a retro sound, simulating the black male background singers of early-’90s house music. Conversely, despite the track’s de rigueur chopped-up vocals standing in for an actual hook, the impeccably produced “Let Me Love You” is reminiscent of Brandy’s “Angel in Disguise,” right down to Grande’s breathy, hypnotic lead vocal. Elsewhere, guest Macy Gray channels Nina Simone on “Leave Me Lonely,” while Grande delivers a coy, youthful performance on the disco-funk “Greedy,” refreshing for a doughnut-sampling 22-year-old who too often tries to look and sound more mature than she is.
Coincidentally, all of these songs are found on Dangerous Woman’s first half, which also includes the standout second single “Into You,” a track that makes reference to not just Elvis Presley’s “A Little Less Conversation” and Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” but pal Jessie J’s “Burnin’ Up,” whose repeated refrain of “put me out” sounds nearly identical to this song’s “light me up.” Aside from the brassy but brief “I Don’t Care” and “Thinkin Bout You” (which, with its weightless production and full-bodied vocal hook, comes close to pop perfection), the songs on the album’s latter half are limited by their strict adherence to contemporary pop and R&B trends.