Friday, July 13th, 2018

Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj – The Light is Coming

It’s Ariana Gran-Day! Starting off with this Nicki duet, containing an unexpected sample…


Rebecca A. Gowns: The sample is fascinating. It reminds me of the baby coo in “Are You That Somebody“; a non-musical sound transformed into a musical refrain, then multiplied so often it becomes the beat itself. And seemingly not connected to the actual content of the song… or is it? Like, is “Are You That Somebody” really about making babies? (Not just euphemistically, but about conception itself?) And is this song really an anti-establishment taunt? (Not just the music industry, but the clowns in Congress, if you will?) Well, who the hell knows. The music here is so much more fascinating than the lyrical content; the man yells about not being interrupted between stringent beep-bop-boop sounds crossing over from Dan Deacon territory. Honestly, it’s reminiscent of a certain other pop/rap song that could also be called equal turns annoying, political, and just plain fun. And like that song, I like it even when it starts to grate. Maybe even because it’s grating — like, thank God established pop artists take risks like this sometimes.

Katherine St Asaph: Gather around, folks, for a recent history lesson! The man sampled all over “The Light Is Coming,” Craig Miller, was part of a Tea Party-organized, “almost entirely white and irritable” crowd protesting an 2009 Arlen Specter town hall in soon-to-flip-red Pennsylvania. The protest was against Obamacare, but it devolved almost immediately into more general right-wing bullshit. You can watch the whole thing on C-SPAN, if you’re short on despair. Lowlights include: “What about this Guantanamo closure? … The [mispronounced] Koar-ann says that all unbelievers shall be executed, killed. That’s why I cannot support Islam.” “He’s right.” (43:56); cheering at “we can take the non-U.S. citizens and give them an airplane ticket and ship them back” (38:47); even louder cheering at “the illegals, they shouldn’t even be here” (18:34), and, toward the end (1:13:13), a familiar refrain: “The people in this room want their country back.” One of them felt the need to clarify that she didn’t have “any Nazi symbols with [her]” (7:45), perhaps because the previous day, in Georgia, someone painted a swastika outside Democratic representative David Scott’s office after his town hall. Do I think Pharrell — who also sampled Specter’s own remarks in “Lemon” — is maliciously sneaking far-right propaganda into our children’s pop music? No, of course not. Maybe he just thought it sounded cool. But including a sample this obscure, this prominently, must have some point, and choosing one so politically charged brings in connotations — connotations that just don’t play nice with the light/darkness/taking-back/theft imagery and taunting delivery of “the light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” It doesn’t help that the Manchester bombing, which every Sweetener interview unavoidably alludes to, was quickly exploited by the far right. It also doesn’t help that Grande’s verses don’t rebut but echo Miller, targeting someone who’s a “know-it-all” (see other protesters’ gripes about “elitists” and a bill written above “junior high school” language), who’s irrational and doesn’t listen, who’s “tellin’ everyone, stay woke” — sides clearly assigned. The beat is great, the most inventive and sinuous Pharrell’s sounded in years, but it’s wasted on — what, exactly? Both-sidesing? A Producers-esque attempt to squash innovation in pop with a bizarre sample set up to fail? Or inadvertently (I hope) something more reactionary than anything Taylor Swift’s ever released? It could be worse. The track’s a “Sleazy”/”Dark Horse”/”Jewels ‘n’ Drugs” urban crossover attempt, for which Grande’s team “auditioned eight rappers,” one of whom may have been much-streamed XXXTentacion. Nicki’s winning verse, self-promotion and fuckboy dissing written remotely, doesn’t engage with the song at all, which is probably for the best. As for fan consensus? Seems to be: “Will that old guy please STFU?”

Vikram Joseph: Ladies and gentlemen, 2018’s most bizarre sampling decision! I’ve read the context behind the “You wouldn’t let anybody speak, and instead…” quote, and it still makes minimal sense to loop it continuously behind what’s otherwise a seductive, abrasive, very N.E.R.D. throb of a beat. Thematically, it seems to be an attempt to take down condescension and echo-chamber complacency in debate (“if it ain’t your view, that’s the bottom line”); this is ambitious, and only occasionally hits the mark, too often stumbling into jumbled nonsense such as “give you a box of chances, every time you blow it all”. Nicki Minaj, meanwhile, is relegated to a brief, off-topic turn in the intro. And all the while, that shouty man keeps shouting (and, god, I really can’t emphasise enough what a strange choice of sample this is). Good Beat, B.A.A.D. Decisions.

Tobi Tella: I mean, you don’t know how HARD I tried to like this. Coming off their three amazing previous collaborations, this should’ve been great. But there’s so much about this I don’t like: the repetitive chorus, the weird way she sings so you can’t actually understand a word she’s saying, the sample of a conservative yelling? It’s all just off-putting and irritating to me. Nicki gets in the best line of the song with “Yo Ariana come let give you a high five”, but even her solid verse can’t save the trainwreck around her.

Abdullah Siddiqui: Little about this track is normal for a Top 40 single. And I find that very refreshing. The hook is effective, in that it hasn’t left the back of my mind in weeks. The instrumental is beautifully minimalistic; the drum sequence at the start reminds me of Björk’s “Heirloom”. I love when the track kicks into double time. Minaj delivers a few solid bars at the top. Grande doesn’t rely too much on her vocal tricks for this one, and it works to the song’s benefit. The track is not without its flaws, however. It feels somewhat structurally underdeveloped. The “you wouldn’t let anybody speak” is a bit overused, and it feels particularly misplaced during the verses. But these flaws are not by any means fatal. This is definitely one of Grande’s most adventurous releases, and I’d go so far as to say, one of her best.

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: Aside from Nicki Minaj, whose tacked-on verse sounds less like its own contribution and more like another mandatory installment in the “Chun-Li” cinematic universe, all the many moving parts here end up making a lot of sense. Ariana’s vocal performance darts between the little open spaces of Pharrell’s beat, expanding and contracting as he brings in bizarro-bounce elements (including a sample from an anti-Obamacare town hall, of all things.) It’s almost interesting enough as a pure physical feat, the way she moves from taunting cadences to breathy whispers to damn-near belting on a second’s notice, but fortunately there’s a good enough song as scaffolding around her too, one that provides enough structure to support “the light is coming” in its pursuit of weird pop glory.

Alex Clifton: Ariana seems to be reinventing pop this year; the work off of Sweetener so far is the most eclectic stuff I’ve heard on the charts in quite some time. Where “No Tears Left to Cry” refused to resolve in any particular tonality (major or minor? why not both!), “The Light Is Coming” stutters and glitches with a sample of an irate citizen from hearings over Obamacare paired with video game beeps and boops. On paper, it shouldn’t work, and it doesn’t overwhelm me the way that all of Ariana’s best tracks have in the past. But in practice it ends up sounding like a dystopian dance song/spoken word poem, which in 2018 feels like a real mood. Ariana and Nicki work well together as always although once Nicki’s initial verse is gone she’s out of the song for good; she could’ve come back pretty easily, and that would’ve made for some nice vocal interplay. But the more I hear of Ariana’s music the more I keep wanting to hear, even when it misses the mark. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a Pop Diva experiment so boldly away from her typical formula, and I’m revelling in every moment of it.

Ashley John: The dismembered corpses of pure pop hooks and Pennsylvania politics roughly stitched together with a Pharrell beat is as close to a summary of Me as a song can get, so I’m partial to and suspicious of it right away. “The Light is Coming” should feel gimmicky, like Ariana is rushing in a rebellious phase, but instead it hits closer to a teaser–of what I am not sure. A Lorde song without the specificity or the groove, a Gwen Stefani track without the whimsy, and in those places just a hollow, trembling core. The track feels like it could collapse in on itself at any point, and actually, how fitting for a chorus of chanted, demanded optimism.

Alfred Soto: A gesture — an attempt to coalesce Pharrellistic effects around a would-be aphorism. One of the effects is Nicki Minaj.  

Thomas Inskeep: The beat, the slightly off-kilter rhythm was nagging at me, and then once I looked up the credits it made sense: it’s Pharrell. And what he’s brought for Ariana here is Trio’s “Da Da Da” cut with Hot Butter’s 1972 smash “Popcorn“! And then, on top of that, Minaj drops a solid opening 12 bars before Grande cuts loose with a message of positivity — the chorus is “the light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole” — that’s obviously another reference to Manchester. And it works. I hope this hits on radio, because it’ll sound glaringly different, and radio needs more of that right now.  

Will Rivitz: Man, Pharrell can’t miss, can he? No one quite does the minimal beat like he does, and the versatility of his productions — fitting everyone from Clipse to Ed Sheeran — is on full display here, addictive vocal sample and all. Of course, it helps that everything else clicks, too: Ariana’s finally embracing her “sardonic” side in her music, Nicki’s verse is serviceable and appropriate if not particularly memorable, and the eerie nonchalance of the chorus perfectly encapsulates the song’s uncanny ambience. Dangerous Woman is one of the best pop albums of the decade, and if Grande’s current singles are any indication, Sweetener could be even better.

Stephen Eisermann: Pharrell’s production has been a bit shaky lately, but here his experimentation works. Nicki gives a perfectly serviceable verse to Pharrell’s noisy beat, but it’s Ariana’s commitment and sass that elevates the track. To take on a track this playful, you need an artist who is willing and able to dance along to the track and Ariana is no slacker; even if the song is a bit weird thematically, sonically it’s a gem and I’ll be dancing along all summer. 

Micha Cavaseno: The unlikely world where I can imagine if Ariana thought the kind of music that came out of Ghostly International at the start of the decade would be the perfect sort of music to top the charts. Nevertheless, she’s utterly at home, crooning and yammering through the strange pinball playground of her design, and to make the retrofitting all the more complete, you have Nicki doing her best to remember when she last sounded interesting… way back at the dawn of the decade.

Pedro João Santos: It’s a idiosyncratic mix of atypical vocal restraint by Ariana, boundless structure and glitchy, angular production courtesy of Pharrell. The verses are amorphous and abstract; Nicki makes a perfunctory but reliable appearance; the circular hook is repeated ad infinitum. Somehow, it all amounts to moderate success, after the brilliant “No Tears Left to Cry”, even despite the appalling sample, which might serve for texture, but not much else. At least, it led to interview gold: “Is Ariana Grande a Christian?”, the man whose voice was sampled, unbeknownst to him, asks an MTV reporter; his wife Karen sensibly replies: “Craig, I think she’s more like Madonna.”

Reader average: [5.23] (13 votes)

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4 Responses to “Ariana Grande ft. Nicki Minaj – The Light is Coming”

  1. genuinely kind of stunned everyone liked this, even without sampling a tea party asshole

  2. yeah uh what this is a mediocre rehash of Lemon and that didn’t rate too well here so I’m shocked this did

  3. The sample isn’t even the issue here. The song would be barely improved without it.

  4. This is so funny. I thought I’d be an outlier! I honestly have a love/hate feeling about this song — like, it’s SO annoying and kind of childish. And on some listens, I’m really feeling it (like when I wrote my blurb) and on others I can’t stand it (like when I heard it later on the radio). I stand by my score, though. Like they really did THAT.