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Steven J. Horowitz
From the moment her breakthrough single "The Way" set her career framework, Ariana Grande has operated in the shadow of a giant: Mariah Carey. Yours Truly, her chart-topping 2013 debut LP, ripped pages out of the book of Carey: a penchant for R&B that bleeds into the pop realm; an on-the-surface innocence belied by a lurking flint of sexuality; the use of hip-hop touchstones; and, of course, whistle tones. Oh, the whistle tones.It was an obvious likening, even if Mimi wouldn't address them. When asked about critics branding Ariana as a "young Mariah," Mimi took an instinctual, shady sidestep, avoiding it directly but speaking on artists generally similar to her. "First of all, I'm still young, I discount numbers. Numerically speaking, I stopped counting at 17," she told Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club last February. "But I wish everybody all the best of luck, and if this is a career path they choose, I hope that they can achieve longevity."
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It's never a bad thing to be compared to Mariah Carey -- after all, her talent and career success are both immense. She's sustained a career for more than 20 years, scoring 18 No. 1 singles on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. She's also the biggest selling woman of the Nielsen SoundScan era, which began in 1991, with 54 million albums sold. But it's a comparison that says less about your influences and more about your legitimacy as a unique artist. To be called a miniaturized version of an musician who's been showcasing their aesthetic for decades implies that you're copying the past, hoping that time forgot the blueprint you're repurposing. No one wants to be seen as that girl.But then along came My Everything, released on Aug. 25, where Ariana essentially crushes that comparison. It's an album of the times, traipsing genres and expertly operating in them. Credit its musical diversity to its very eclectic personnel roster, which spans Top 40 juggernauts like Max Martin and Ryan Tedder to cooler kids like Cashmere Cat and the Weeknd, artists Mariah has never worked with. (Even Harry Styles is in the liner notes, though it's unclear if Mariah knows who that is.) And then extend that differentiation to the fact that Grande has moved away from the vocal signifiers — the head voice, the enunciation — that have distinguished Mariah over the years. Mariah is not Ariana, Ariana is no longer Mariah.The clear benchmarks for analogues at first were several, and a sizeable portion of the pie chart was dominated by whistle tones, which gave critics a hall pass for comparison. Mariah has always been notable for her eccentric persona, only outsized by her octaves-spanning vocal range that's often employed at the end of a song to emphasize some sort of ebullient conclusion. It's a method that dates back to "Someday" and "Anytime You Need a Friend" and follows a thread through the decades, most recently on the Me... I Am Mariah standout "Make It Look Good."That influence on Ariana was immediate from the onset of her recording career — take her wink-nod 2012 cover of "Emotions" — and realized on Yours Truly singles like "The Way" and "Baby I." But My Everything pivots away from the full-blown flageolet register, instead filing her vocals down to a more manicured, pop-centric confine. There are fleeting and brief moments, like the quick half-measure, closing adlibs on "Break Free" and "Be My Baby," but it's almost entirely eradicated from the LP. It's a move that distinguishes Ariana from her foremother, something that Mariah would pretty much never do. From a purely technical level, however, it's an approach that makes Ariana more accessible to Top 40 listeners. Not only can you enjoy her track, but you can sing along with it, too, something that hasn't always been the case for Mariah. In classic industry standard, often the best single is the most simple, and that's where she hits with My Everything.Of course, even if the songs are great on My Everything, it lacks focus. Where Yours Truly concentrated R&B signifiers into a pop template, My Everything is a sprawling patchwork of songs ping-ponging across genres, most likely in an attempt to disguise pandering to a variety of audiences as "experimentation." She flirts with EDM ("Break Free," "One Last Time"), gets her hip-hop sample on (Diana Ross on "Break Your Heart Right Back," The Sylvers on Target bonus track "Cadillac Song") and dips from the same schlocky well that Glee does when they need an evocative ballad ("Why Try," "Just a Little Bit of Your Heart"). It effectively kills the balance that was struck on Yours Truly, perhaps a byproduct of elbowing Babyface and Harmony Samuels out of the creative process. Every song on My Everything stands on its own, and is meant to be a hit — after all, we're living in the iTunes era.Mariah doesn't do that. Although Ariana's only two albums deep (barring a Christmas EP and the 4 Non Blondes-sampling "Put Your Hearts Up" that Spotify won't let time forget), Mariah is a better visionary. She clearly considers the sum greater than its parts, often working with the same recurring cast of characters. Her latest, Me. I Am Mariah... The Elusive Chanteuse, is a self-aware project that matches middle age with music appropriate for it. It's lightly colored with a Motown palette and a dash of Adult Contemporary, but it's firmly rooted in feel-good R&B. It's an echo of musical decisions made through her career: Mariah has always latched onto one sound and used a whole album to explore it. Butterfly, for example, was sexualized midnight storm R&B, Rainbow a handshake between pop and R&B, Music Box a dated snapshot of C&C Dance Factory torch-bearing and Disney balladry. They may have all been 50 shades of different, but they each remained true to one style.
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Now, music is so diversified that Ariana could have gone in every direction at once, and did. Mariah could, but would never. There are benefits, of course, and detractors. The discrepancy is evident in each project's performance. My Everything is likely heading toward another No. 1 debut for Grande and has already spawned two smash singles. Me... I Am Mariah bowed at No. 3 with Carey's lowest opening for a non-holiday album since 1991, and "#Beautiful," one of four singles released from the LP, peaked at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sonically, Ariana hits on all sorts of notes that harken back to tracks that have already found success on the charts. Mariah? Not so much.So what's left? That the other Target bonus track "Too Close" sounds fairly reminiscent of "I've Been Thinking About You?" Sure. Working with du jour hip-hop artists? Spend some time with Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera's catalogues and you'll find a likeness. Christmas songs? See: pretty much everyone. But when you call Ariana "mini-Mariah," what you're really saying is that she's a talented singer with a big voice (and with far less diction), as well as other similarities that have faded over time. In effect, My Everything almost entirely ends the conversation there, moving Grande out of the Mariahsphere — until further notice.
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