By Steven Martinez
Trends in most mainstream music reflect cutting-edge developments from the less heard corners of the music industry. This is not news, it’s not even particularly insightful, but it is nonetheless factual. However, it also doesn’t mean that pop music can’t be both pleasurable and objectively good. Case in point: Ariana Grande‘s recent capitulation to popular trends on her latest single “Problem.”
Any listener can immediately identify the saxophone loop, apparently a sample, on “Problem” and recognize eerily similar production in Jason Derulo‘s “Talk Dirty” and perhaps even more readily on Macklemore‘s smash “Thrift Shop.” (One would also be remiss for failing to mention that Kanye West likewise employed horns on his 2006 single “Touch the Sky” — more evidence of his prescience.) So, yes, it’s a derivate but “Problem” succeeds on much the same terms as her previous hits. Namely, stellar, kinetic production and Grande‘s soaring vocals (though the lyrics here are not to be scoffed at either).
In the song, Grande laments her affection for a lover who consistently mistreats her, and criticizes herself for swooning at his repeated and likely disingenuous declarations of contrition and rehabilitation, ultimately concluding she has her “head in the clouds” and “one less problem without [him].” She doubtlessly arrives at this decision with an assist from Iggy Azalea, who’s featured on the song and who dedicates her verse, the song’s last, to generally gelding males of the lothario variety (and referencing Jay-Z in the process). “There’s a million ‘you’s, baby boy,” she spits, “so don’t be dumb/I got 99 problems but you won’t be one.”
Azalea gets the mic-dropping send-off, but Grande does most of the stage setting here. In each of her two verses, she, Grande, fires off her lines in rapid succession, almost piling the sentences on top of one another, as if she’s in a hurry to finish the conversation before her former lover can swindle her again. This rush, however, does nothing to dampen her vocal prowess. She’s fluidly melodic and layered throughout and spectacularly builds her pre-chorus couplets to a climactic crescendo. (Alas, she saves glimpses of her dazzling melismas for the song’s outro.)
It’s invariably refreshing to hear a twist (or a tweak) on the au courant production trends, but combine that with a decent message — Taylor Swift‘s “I Knew You Were Trouble,” which glorifies the triumph of ephemeral emotions over reason, is a main offender here — and genuine talent and you’re hearing something special (and something bound to become tremendously popular). Creating music that meets both criteria, on the evidence of this song and her debut album, seems to be no problem for Miss Grande.