2016 has been a landmark year for the world’s biggest pop stars, people who’ve ascended to the highest possible level of cultural prominence. Rihanna’s assured, defiant ANTI has racked up a handful of hits and the most critical acclaim of her career; Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo has turned a run-of-the-mill album release into a months-long soap opera spanning the worlds of music, fashion, and technology; Beyoncé’s Lemonade has set a new standard for narrative ambition in pop; Drake’s Views has blown the doors off the charts. It’s an exciting time for those of us who like watching musical innovation take place at the grandest possible scale.
It feels like we can’t go a full day without one of the four artists above gobbling up headline space, but there’s still plenty of room to recognize the fine work being done by the artists making up pop’s B-list. That classification might sound like a pejorative, but it’s just a fact. A mini-generation of young talent has been relegated to second-tier status despite praise from critics and impressive commercial feats, largely because they haven’t had the time to develop the force of personality required to grab the listening world by its chin.
Just look at this month’s release calendar: Meghan Trainor, Ariana Grande, and Fifth Harmony have dropped new albums in consecutive weeks, and you can make the case all of them have been disadvantaged by their position in the wake of 2016’s massive first two quarters. Trainor, Grande, and the women of Fifth Harmony are trying to make one of the toughest leaps imaginable: the one that separates “great” from “transcendent.” Their new albums attempt to bridge that chasm in markedly different ways.
For Trainor, stepping forward means tapping into the recent past. Title, the doo-wop-drunk major label debut she released last January, framed her as a shrewd classicist and a sharp melodic mind; her new album, the magnanimously titled Thank You, suggests she’s a quick study, too. Her album-length strategy hasn’t changed: mix equal parts radio-ready bangers and melodramatic ballads, and season with inspirational platitudes and jocular self-effacement.
But the reference points have been dragged forward a few decades, her doo-wop influences having been replaced by the sounds of teen-pop’s turn-of-the-millennium golden age. "NO" cribs its pile-driving synths and vocal rhythms from NSYNC and prime Britney Spears; Nicole Scherzinger would have signed one or two of the lesser Pussycat Dolls into indentured servitude for something as bouncy and indelible as "Me Too." After being criticized for feeble attempts at rapping and her earnest-but-goofy patois, Trainor’s using both vocal approaches more judiciously. There are a few songs on Thank You — the bluesy "Hopeless Romantic," the Jason Mraz-level ditty "Just a Friend to You" — that’d scan as completely unmemorable sung without her knack for vocal arrangement. The album sheds much of the tackiness that marred Title while retaining the safety. It’s rooted in the kind of pop that’s become musical comfort food for people Trainor’s age.
All of that professionalism and proficiency can’t keep Trainor from feeling a little nondescript, even now. The sense of self-confidence that pervades her work — whether it’s the body positivity of "All About That Bass" or the radiant brassiness of "Watch Me Do" and "Me Too" — is spiked with a hard-to-place insincerity; she’s the contemporary female pop star who sounds the most like she first heard the word "empowerment" in a marketing meeting. (She hasn’t exactly earned the listening public’s faith: when she yanked the video for "Me Too" after learning her body had been retouched throughout, fans speculated on whether or not the whole fiasco was designed to pump up her feminist bona fides.) Thank You isn’t marked by anything as retrograde as Title’s "Dear Future Husband," but it has its fair share of weepy, dependent anthems: "Hopeless Romantic," "Just a Friend to You," the generic "Kindly Calm Me Down."
Trainor’s brand of self-confidence is relatable, not aspirational. She’d have you believe she’s your peer before anything else: the star who’s just as starstruck by Beyoncé and Rihanna as you are, the one who has just as much trouble with her iPhone battery and her Uber drivers. It’s a savvy strategy on paper — the attainable middle ground between "normal" person listening and superhuman diva — but it sounds like a hedged bet in practice. I believe Meghan Trainor’s belief in herself is absolute, and with good reason: she’s a talented, capable performer who’s enjoyed phenomenal success at a young age. Thank You takes flight when she embraces that belief without a shrug or a self-effacing crack in sight.
Grande’s interest in independence has less to do with direct musical advocacy than personal liberation. Dangerous Woman is her third LP, and it represents the ostensible debut of an alter ego Grande’s dubbed the Super Bunny, a Sasha Fierce-like guardian spirit that represents her inner "bad bitch." The Bunny’s presence doesn’t result in any radical musical change; if you liked My Everything’s bleeding-edge blend of R&B, dance music, and hip-hop, you’ll find plenty to love within Dangerous Woman. But it sounds like Grande’s leaving that album’s campy strangeness behind for more focused writing and subtle humor, and that’s an unexpected shift from a star whose trademark scandal revolved around licking unsold donuts and declaring that she hated America.
Ironically, the "danger" that gives Dangerous Woman its title typically assumes a male form: men Grande knows are bad for her, men who’ve already disappointed her in some way, men who promise to blow her mind. But autonomy is important to her: she wants the right to make the kind of mistakes young people are supposed to make. "Moonlight" is an ingenious opening feint, its goody-two-shoes waltz belying something a little less chaste. Rugged disco thumper "Into You" tips its cap to Elvis Presley’s "A Little Less Conversation," and when Grande sings "I ain’t talkin’ money, I’m just physically obsessed" in the middle of the flashy "Greedy," I hear echoes of Chaka Khan (and Prince) on "I Feel for You": "I wouldn’t lie to you, baby / I’m physically attracted to you."
Grande can’t help herself. She repeatedly surrenders to lust and accepts the risks. There’s "Side to Side," a lilting collaboration with Nicki Minaj: "I’m comin’ at you / ‘cause I know you’ve got a bad reputation / Doesn’t matter ‘cause you’re giving me temptation." There’s the refrain Macy Gray sings on "Leave Me Lonely," another torchy slow-burner: "Dangerous love / you’re no good for me, darling." There’s the bridge of "Sometimes": "You don’t know what it does to me when I feel you around / Is it love? Is it lust? Is it fear? But it’s hard to breathe when you’re touching me there." All of the recklessness climaxes with the infectious "Bad Decisions," a celebration of jumping into the deep end: "I’ve been doing stupid things / wilder than I’ve ever been."
Her lyrical discipline is impressive, but Dangerous Woman’s production — potent though it may be — lacks the same focus. Working with two main groups of producers — there’s Martin’s famed Swedish cabal and a camp led by American producer Tommy Brown — Grande opts for omnivorousness where Trainor chose hyper-focused revivalism. "Be Alright," "Touch It," and the gossamer "Knew Better / Forever Boy" are bulletproof dance-pop compositions; "Into You" is the best Robyn song this side of Body Talk; "Greedy" preys on all the listeners trying to fill the gap "Uptown Funk" left in their lives. The guest spots from Minaj, Lil Wayne, and Future aren’t all memorable, but they’re further proof she’s conversant with hip-hop, and she’s learned to amp up the effectiveness of her voice by selectively deploying its full power. With all of that said, it’s still tough to pin down what an Ariana Grande record sounds like beyond "popular" and "everything." She’s proven herself a weird, determined cultural figure, one just as likely to drop a Gloria Steinem quote on Twitter as a new single, and she’s still figuring out how to fully realize that person in her art.
Fifth Harmony are trying to walk a different path with their new LP 7/27, one that’s mostly detached from conscious stabs at feminist anthems of any sort. It’s a surprising choice, if only because the group’s full-length debut Reflection remains the best collection of girl power-pop in recent memory: it was funny, cheeky, positive, and more effective for it. "BO$$" celebrated financial independence with references to Michelle Obama and "Oprah dollars;" the title track turned a drippy love song into a home run by revealing the girls were singing to their reflections in the mirror. (Trainor’s struggle to balance self-confidence and good humor makes even less sense when you realize she wrote three of the songs on Reflection, including the zippy "Suga Mama.")
They've got a few perfect summer jams
Beyond the "Worth It"-aping opener "That’s My Girl" and effervescent Prince knockoff "Not That Kinda Girl," 7/27 leaves that subject matter in the past: this is a straightforward collection of songs about love and lust, one made with the help of some heavy-hitting producers and songwriters. Ty Dolla $ign heads up lead single "Work from Home," celebrating all the fun you can have turning your bedroom into an office for a day. Tinashe’s bubbly work on "The Life" and "Scared of Happy" make it harder to stomach the fact her own LP seems to be caught in label purgatory. And you can thank a bunch of Norwegians for the album’s best tracks: veteran duo Stargate and EDM prince Kygo come together for "Write on Me" and "Squeeze," songs that take advantage of tropical house’s relaxed pace and silky bounce. You can argue these songs are already a little dated — listening to them in a few years will feel the way revisiting this decade’s early dubstep-pop hybrids feels now. (Have you listened to "Hold It Against Me" or "I Knew You Were Trouble" lately? It’s like cracking open a time capsule.) But in the moment, they’re the perfect summer jams: weightless, buoyant, a little silly.
That weightlessness makes 7/27 feel a step ahead of Thank You and Dangerous Woman. It suggests a thorough album-length embrace of empowerment is more like a rite of passage than the foundation of a successful career; you get it out of your system and figure out a more natural path forward. That’s certainly been true for all of their most successful ancestors. Beyoncé moved from "Independent Women, Pt. 1" and "Bills, Bills, Bills" to asserting total control over the recording and release process; Rihanna’s ANTI is basically an LP-length version of Dangerous Woman’s flippant highlight "I Don’t Care." You don’t need to stuff an album with 12 versions of "***Flawless" when every part of your image and career is radiating autonomy. You don’t necessarily need an active compositional hand to get there, either: Fifth Harmony’s members are totally absent from 7/27’s writing and production credits, but the album has a self-assured ease Trainor and Grande are still trying to nail down.