Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem

Not a girl, not yet a woman…


Daniel Montesinos-Donaghy: Ariana Grande won an award at the Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards for her co-lead role on the tween sitcom Sam & Cat, which came as a shock for two reasons: (1) Grande is better known as a TV star than she is a pop star, and (2) this proves there is a world outside the Internet. Online, Grande is — well — GRANDE, SORRY NO NOT SORRY FOR THAT PUN. IRL, she’s killing the orange blimp comedy game. (This is a little like remembering that Juana Molina is not famous for being a freak-folk genie but an Argentinian sketch comedy artist.) “Problem” feels like a post-Kids’ Choice moment: Grande picking something a little more current, the music explicitly suited and booted rather than rationale for Sandra Dee dresses. That’s a familiar pop narrative — young female artist shaking off the supposed shackles of tween fandom — but nonetheless, it’s effective. Of course, she and her A&Rs keep recruiting rappers who do nothing for her music, like the Foghorn Leghorn impressionist that is Azalea. It makes sense, though: the rapper is real-world famous and gets mostly shitted on in online circles, making her inclusion a one-for-me-one-for-them moment. Iggy’s for them. We can take solace in that brutally effective bass’n’siren breakdown, a space leap from getting slimed to DROP DOWN AND GET YA EAGLE ON, GIRL.

Crystal Leww: For how lighthearted and giddy and joyful it was, Yours Truly was sneakily ambitious. It managed to properly introduce a pop singer who wanted to evoke the name of Mariah Carey, and it didn’t just adopt but updated the sound of the late ’90s/early ’00s. “Problem” continues in this tradition, using Grande’s powerful voice to update the sound of Jenny from the Block. No one else can make that “you-hoo-hoo!” sound so exuberant, or throw themselves into “head in the clouds, got no weight on my shoulder/I should be wiser and realize that I’ve got” with such eyes-closed-heart-first-falling-into-something-stupid abandon. It’s a shame this is such a sloppy cut-and-paste job at times, a technique producers Max Martin and Shellback have done better. The whispery hook is ill-suited to this, belonging in the dark male fantasies of the Ying Yang Twins. The horns are trendy, I guess, ripped straight from the Jason Derulo playbook, but inappropriately false. Everyone likes to dump on Mac Miller and Big Sean, but their verses teemed with specific, well-thought-out references to their source material. Iggy Azalea shoots for easy references to Biggie and Jay Z and succeeds at reaching exactly where she aims for. Her verse isn’t even stupid fun; it’s just stupid boring. This is inevitably headed into summer pop jam territory, but it could be timeless if it weren’t so often held back.

Alfred Soto: “Too many notes” is one complaint. “What a mish-mash” is another. I mean, En Vogue and “The Whisper Song” and Iggy Azalea competing for space?

Patrick St. Michel: It’s a testament to Ariana Grande that, despite being regularly being paired with far-from-stellar artists, she rises above to deliver — at minimum — an alright song. Iggy Azalea isn’t so much a (cough) problem here as much as she’s… just there, delivering a rap interlude that buffers out the running time and courts the Iggy demographic. Everything else, though, is strong. Maybe Max Martin heard those horns on “Thrift Shop” and, after unscrewing his face upon hearing Macklemore talk about his “big cock,” decided they needed saving. Good move — they sound great here, as does Grande’s voice. At this point, she probably doesn’t need to gun for the new-Mariah tag on every song, but no shame in flaunting what you got.

Megan Harrington: Everyone sounds great here. Grande finally gets the built-for-Mariah track she’s been preening for. Iggy and Big Sean are her goony posse. It sounds like a teen rom-com in miniature, and it’s perfectly timed to kick off summer break. I am covertly rooting for Iggy who, though she’s hardly struggling on the Hot 100, has found her match in this song as much as Grande. “Problem” is so simply effective that all involved should be feeling quite nervous about how to follow up its success. 

Thomas Inskeep: I suspect this will be ’14’s “Call Me Maybe” in terms of impact (if not YouTube lip-sync videos), and it deserves to be, because this is perfect pop. It’s A-list Max Martin, in that it doesn’t sound like Max Martin — I mean, there’s a rip from Ying Yang Twins’s “Wait,” for pete’s sake! Iggy Azalea, whatever you think of her, is a weirdo — white Aussie female rapper who sounds for all the world like Eve circa 2002 — which makes her an asset in the pop universe. Ariana increasingly looks like the latest kiddie-TV star to go legit as a pop princess, and why not? She’s a better singer than Demi Lovato. In fact, she’s a pretty damned good singer, like a younger, poppier version of Mariah-spliced-with-Whitney. This is so tasty, I can even forgive the sax riff ganked from that awful Macklemore record.

Scott Mildenhall: Kazoo! Playing something just a mite away from “Gonna Make You Sweat.” You’re on to a winner with that alone. Ariana Grande can sing — and if anything sings a bit too much at points — but with that she makes the most of lyrics short and sharp, ones lesser vocalists would skim right through. With that and Azalea deftly bolstering the word count, there’s a pleasing balance to the whole thing.

Will Adams: After Yours Truly proved samey, it’s nice to hear Grande taking a different direction for her second go-round. However, there’s a concerted effort to crowd her out as much as possible. A thrift-shop “Thrift Shop” horn here, a whispered chorus there, no less creepy than when Ying Yang Twins did it, and Iggy Azalea just saying words. Grande’s portions are gorgeous, as expected, but just when she gets comfortable, the rug is pulled out from under her.

Katherine St Asaph: Given the promising sales but spotty vox on Yours Truly, I assumed Grande or Republic or Nickelodeon would get a vocal coach in, but nope: she’s never sounded worse. The backing vocals are soft and processed enough to pass, but the rest’s thin and pinched and nasal; I still think she’d sound more natural singing almost anything else. Which brings me to the other thing: I was at dinner with friends the other day and someone brought up “Problem,” and I blew everyone’s minds by saying Grande was 20. Right? It’s not that Grande is too young for this — Britney and Mandy were actually underage in their coquette phases — but the quick cut from Grande’s pink princess image to stockings and thigh shots, and from the most virginal take possible on early Mariah to “Talk Dirty” sax and Big Sean not talking dirty exactly but sounding it, whispering over heavy-breathing percussion like the one Ying Yang Twins song in pop memory, comes off highly troubling. (Also troubling, in a different way: Despite doing the hook and getting a credit for “Right There,” Sean is uncredited here. Given Grande’s history of mostly white guests — Mac Miller, Mika, Nathan Sykes, now Iggy Azalea — this seems deliberate and unfortunate, like Republic is trying to position Grande as urban but, y’know, not too urban.) Add Iggy Azalea embarrassing herself with no one realizing, and Max Martin et al’s lazy comping of all the garish parts — the bit after Iggy’s rap is a pause, crossfade, prechorus repeated over a canned synth crescendo, then crossfade again, which screams “it’s only 2:20 but we have no idea how to transition again” — and it’s all so regrettable.

Anthony Easton: The whisper in this is delightful in how little menace it has, and Azalea cannot quite sass out her refusal, but Grande’s flow is precise and quick, plus the horns are sleazy enough to be almost interesting. 

Brad Shoup: Apparently I’m not to talk about the other one, but she’s just one roadblock. Max and Shellback and Ilya cook up a decent Rich Harrison approximate, although they’re a little too cuckoo for that sax. Grande is automatic like ignition at this point; still, her throwback work ends up just another sonic element in sequence.

Rebecca A. Gowns: Most of the elements of this song are extremely annoying. Sometimes this kind of melee can be fun, like being in the middle of a swarm of kindergartners. This particular arrangement hits me like a kindergarten class on a sugar high before naptime: grating synth horns, pestering whispers, tinny sounds everywhere. Even Ariana sounds like she’s straining, which is weird. Everything in this track feels short and filmsy, yet they still managed to leave room for Iggy Azalea to deliver a completely unnecessary verse. I can feel the sticky fingers of this 5-year-old Australian girl on my shoulders now, as she repeats her name in my ear: “It’s Iggy Iggs!” She smells like Pop-Tarts and feet. I desperately want to call her parents, but what would I say? “Mr. and Mrs. Azalea, the sound of your daughter’s voice repulses me on a visceral level.” No, no; I’ll stay zen. This will all be over soon.

Mallory O’Donnell: Capable and well-performed take on a pleasing old sound that starts off strong but gradually gets sloppy and heavy-handed until Iggy arrives to drive it straight to the middle of the road. Fun to forgettable in just a few short moves.

Reader average: [7.52] (23 votes)

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21 Responses to “Ariana Grande ft. Iggy Azalea – Problem”

  1. “‘It’s Iggy Iggs!’ She smells like Pop-Tarts and feet.” REBECCA <3333

  2. actually, these are all fantastic. bravo, everyone

  3. Thanks dude!

    Daniel, very pleased that you referenced the Foghorn Leghorn impersonation. It’s like the FedEx arrow; it cannot be unseen (nor unheard).


  5. Behind the screengrab: in lieu of azaleas, roses. It was only after I did the uploads that I realized I omitted every feature from today’s pics.

  6. just comp her in

  7. Katherine’s right, she really does need a vocal coach. Clearly she’s talented, but… Well, Mariah never sounded this rough. And if you’re gunning for her throne, you gotta take some voice lessons.

  8. Next time I’ll stomp on a Pop Tart and take a picture.

  9. Brad, I don’t know if I would find “Iggy Rose” a better or worse name for her, but we’ll never know now, will we?

    Anyway, this song is spectacular and Ariana is pretty good, but I don’t know why the internet is making her out to be “the saviour of pop”, as if a.) there’s a need for that, and b.) she’s the best option for the job.

  10. Reminder: Iggy Azalea’s government name is Amelia Amethyst Kelly, and so she’s actually opting for a slightly less ridiculous name as her stage name. Reminder x 2: Iggy is an Amazonian Aussie who raps about “half-stepping” as if she’s not perpetrating by doing so.

    The horns here are wicked, Grande’s filigreed-as-ever vocals aren’t great, Iggy’s verse is boring except for its speed, and the *mysterious* whisper from Big Sean is stupid. It sounds better in a radio mix than in isolation.

  11. I more or less love this, but I’m super weirded out by Iggy going into Macklemore’s exact double-time “I bought this and also I bought this too” flow as the beat drops near-identically to Thrift Shop

  12. would she be more legit at a lesser height?

  13. i nice demonstration of what katherine’s talking about is comparing this to “fantasy.” in terms of matching that kind of chest register exuberance, ariana’s got her work cut out for her. (though i honestly don’t think she HAS to be as good as mariah! it just becomes an unfortunate comparison.) an additional perk of listening to this side by side with fantasy is that fantasy is a good example of how to fold a brassy, possibly grating sound into a seamless beat (that wee-oh-wee-oh-wee, for lack of better terms at hand and also its 2 fucking AM #finals) whereas this is a good example of how NOT to.

  14. when josh l and i were at an american supermarket he forbid me from buying peanut butter pop tarts because we did not have a toaster in the hotel room. ever since i have been craving them.

  15. pop tarts need no toaster!

  16. am i am some kind of savage?

  17. She’d be more legit if she didn’t drop as many letters as the French do when she raps. That combined with her voice is the worst possible intersection of “I want this to seem effortless” and “I’m trying really really hard”.

  18. ALSO, this seemingly flew under the radar, but Frankie Knuckles remixed “Baby I” and it is SUBLIME

  19. Oh wow, thanks Richaod! That mix is heavenly. Must have been one of his last ones.

  20. Three days later, and “white Aussie female rapper who sounds for all the world like Eve circa 2002” and the accompanying horror are still surfacing in my head at quiet moments. Like, lol, have you even heard Eve.

  21. if you think we’re critical TRY BEING MAX MARTIN’S DAUGHTER:

    “Wendy Goldstein, Grande’s A&R rep at Republic, spent two years trying to get Martin involved; finally, when work was about to begin on Grande’s album, he said he was in. “He has a young daughter that’s a huge Ariana fan,” says Goldstein. “He said, ‘I’ve never seen my daughter excited about someone that I’ve worked with, and that’s really saying something.’”