Remember when I used to reviews albums like all the time? I used to be so productive. Now I hardly ever post album reviews. Anyway, today I’d like to amend that and do a few little reviews for some albums I missed along the way. As you can tell by the title, those albums are LM5 by Little Mix, Expectations by Bebe Rexha, and Sweetener by Ariana Grande.
Usually I only review albums I like because I believe to do a truly thorough music review you have to give it repeated listens. If I don’t like an album, I’m not going to do that. However, I made exceptions for these artists. I’ve always loved Little Mix and Ariana Grande, so I felt compelled to give them second, third, and even fourth chances on their disappointing latest projects. The only exception to my exception is Bebe Rexha. I used to love Bebe, but that love has waned over the last few years. I don’t know if I find her music repetitive or if she’s grown less authentic, but I just don’t love her music the way I once did. I gave her album only two chances before I was done. And one of those chances was today, so I could include it in this review.
And now, in no particular order, here are my semi-in-depth thoughts on LM5, Expectations, and Sweetener:
I’ve already touched on my feelings for this album in a recent opinion piece, but today I’d like to get a little bit more into the nitty gritty.
I’ve been a Little Mix fan for years. I’m convinced they’re the perfect quartet to bring back the girl group, but Americans refuse to give them their due. The ladies— Perrie Edwards, Jesy Nelson, Jade Thirlwall, and Leigh-Anne Pinnock— are not only talented, but seem to be genuine friends. The reason so many groups and bands fail is because the members don’t always like each other. This potential for animosity increases tenfold when the group is made up of singers who auditioned for a talent show as individual artists and were later retconned into a group. I mean, just look what happened to Fifth Harmony.
And yet, even in this Little Mix stands apart. I don’t know what kind of water Simon Cowell was drinking the day he decided to group these four women together, but he needs to start drinking it again. He truly hit lightning in a bottle with these four lovely ladies.
Unfortunately, it’s also Cowell who seems to have stunted their worldwide potential. Instead of working with the dynamic foursome he has in these women, he chooses to put together more groups fated to fail. I don’t know how much of a hand he’s had in each of their albums, but he clearly wasn’t drinking his magic water during the making of LM5.
Each Little Mix album prior to this latest release has been different from the one before. DNA is a Europop phenomenon. It was the perfect way to introduce these women to the industry outside the UK. Salute is all about women and self-empowerment. It both has the most umph out of all their albums, but it also packs the strongest emotional punch.
Get Weird is what I would call their experimental record. Though not experimental in the larger sense, it is a departure for the group. They play with their sound, dipping their toes in ‘50s doo wop and EDM. The deluxe version of the album also features an a capella track. Glory Days finds Little Mix expressing their sexuality. Unlike with some formerly “innocent” artists, this exploration feels authentic.
LM5, however, doesn’t tread new ground. Instead, it tramples all over the foundation laid by its predecessors. It’s the ugly cousin of Glory Days, most of the tracks lesser versions of what’s found on the former. “Strip” is the poor man’s “Down & Dirty.” “Told You So” is the passive aggressive “Nothing Else Matters.” “Woman’s World,” while a good ballad, isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been said before.
The quartet also tries to explore their darker sides. While I can’t say I doubt they have these flaws, the execution is mediocre and stale. “Monster in Me” is every “I have a dark side” song that’s come before it since the ‘90s. It’s so cliché, I can’t believe a word they’re saying.
The bigger offender on this front, however, is “Woman Like Me.” There’s something between the lyrics and the delivery that simply doesn’t feel authentic. Part of the issue, perhaps, is that the song was co-written by Ed Sheeran. Sheeran’s personability has fallen to the wayside since his second record. Hell, two of the three writers are men (the only woman who wrote on the song, aside from the rap verse, is Jess Glynne). That clouds the authenticity of these experiences of a flawed woman. Sure, we can presume Glynne can speak from experience, but four male hands have sterilized it.
The worst part of the song, however, is Nicki Minaj. Her verse, both in lyrical content and format, is basically the same verse she wrote for Ariana Grande’s “Side to Side.” That makes her line, “I switch it up for every era” all the more laughable. Minaj hasn’t done anything fresh in years and nowhere is it more blatantly obvious than on this track.
None of these songs, though, earn the distinction of being the worst on the album. That title goes easily to “Joan of Arc.” Actually, “Joan of Arc” isn’t the worst song on the album. It’s the worst song in Little Mix’s entire discography. I have never been able to listen to the song all the way through. It’s that cringy. This isn’t women empowerment or feminism. This is a gross appropriation of historical and literary women to give this garbage some legitimacy. Let’s collectively agree to pretend it doesn’t exist.
Fortunately, I can’t say there’s nothing I like LM5. This album has three great songs I absolutely love: “American Boy,” “More Than Words,” and “Motivate.” These three songs alone, out of a fourteen-track record (never mind the extra four on the deluxe edition), shine as bona fide bops.
“American Boy” finds a perfect balance between heartfelt and pop anthem. It’s also one of the few times on the album it feels like the girls are trying to branch out. “More Than Words,” featuring the lovely Kamille and produced by Timbaland, is a pounding power ballad. It’s a song in which the speaker is almost distraught with love. The lyrics are devotional, but the tone is almost painful. “Motivate” is a Rihanna-esque jam set in the darkly sexy minor scale. It’s the sultry sister of “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” by Deniece Williams. If you don’t want to give the whole album a chance, do yourself a favor and check out these three songs.
As painful as it is, I simply cannot endorse this album. It’s messy and half-assed. It feels like Edwards, Pinnock, Nelson, and Thirlwall are merely pumping out music so they can run out their contract with Syco (probably RCA too). They’ve openly expressed that they feel abandoned by Simon Cowell. It makes sense that they’d want to leave his record label ASAP. I just wish it didn’t come at a detriment to their music. I knew it was a bad omen when Little Mix titled the album LM5 (typically only a placeholder title). I just didn’t know the true horror that portended. Little Mix, I guess I’ll see you when LM6 comes out. And hopefully this time, you’ll actually try.
As with LM5, I sensed early on that this record was destined for failure. The title is the same as that of a vastly superior album that was released earlier in the year, Hayley Kiyoko’s own long-awaited debut (both artists released several EPs before finally dropping a full-length record). The album cover is a shitty knock-off of Demi Lovato’s 2017 smash album, Tell Me You Love Me (especially the deluxe edition). Rexha’s singles in the year or so preceding the album release were lackluster at best and droning at worst. The album I once eagerly anticipated was shaping up to be a colossal misfire.
In truth, the album isn’t as bad as I thought it would be. But it isn’t good either. Stuffed to the brim with clichés, the record is mediocre and safe. There’s no sign of the unique artist trying desperately for years to break into the industry. Rexha was once ballsy and blunt— now she’s inoffensive and generic.
When Rexha isn’t spouting platitudes we’ve all heard before, she’s remaking her older, better songs. “I’m a Mess,” though arguably one of the best songs on the record, is a disappointingly tame “I’m Gonna Show You Crazy.” “Self Control” is simply “Gateway Drug.” Even though I find the new version better, it still suffers for being the same song a second time.
Many songs that don’t retread old ground have promise. The issue is you can see exactly where it was squandered. “2 Souls on Fire” has a nice groove, but relies too heavily on repetition to make a hook. “Knees” is a vulnerable ballad, but it’s littered with clichés. It’s also essentially the ballad version of “I Got You.” “Mine” is great in subject matter, addressing a partner who’s far more into you than Rexha is in them. The problem is, again, the endless repetition. “Steady” is pleasantly dark, but interrupts its own flow with a Tory Lanez verse drenched in autotune.
“Meant to Be” is the album’s weakest effort. Despite Rexha’s heralding of the track as a trailblazer in pop-country crossovers, the song’s success is surely a fluke. It’s inane, generic drivel made for your average retail store’s playlist. Florida Georgia Line do the song no favors, hokey as they are. The fact that this song charted on both the pop and country charts is a testament to how barren they’ve been as of late.
There are a couple songs that I really like, songs that really show off Rexha’s artistry. “Shining Star” takes inspiration from Latin music, but the dark themes sap it of its sensuality. It’s actually very effective at getting the message across. “I Got You,” despite being Rexha’s gateway to abusing the repetitive hook, is a bop. It’s Rexha’s last single to truly feel dynamic (aside from “That Way I Are (Dance with Somebody)”, which didn’t make the album). “Sad” is upbeat and relatable, one of the most honest songs on the album. Those of us who have struggled with mental health or just been in a rut know what it’s like to realize our problems may, in part, stem from the comfort we find in the familiarity of our negative feelings or situation.
“Don’t Get Any Closer” is haunting, truly embodying the fear of getting close to someone. “Grace” is an earnest ballad that questions how to break up with someone gracefully. Though breaking up is a common topic in music, the methodology isn’t. These five songs prove that when Rexha really tries, she can strike gold.
Out of the three albums on this post, I’d tentatively say this one is the best. But not by a wide margin. Rexha wastes too much time playing it safe and trying to score a hit, rather than focusing on her originality. In doing so, she overestimates her own fame and recycles tropes and her own prior songs. Alas, Bebe Rexha still can’t cement herself as a pop star, even after wedging herself into the business. This album, while it did exceed my expectations, ultimately still fails to impress.
Why review an album Grande has clearly already left behind? I think it’s fair to reflect on the mistakes of our public figures. Also, because I can.
Truthfully, this is another painful one. I’ve been an Ariana Grande fan since her days on Victorious. I wasn’t really a fan of the show and found her character grating, but her early songs were great. Whether from Victorious (“Take a Hint”), a cover released on YouTube (“Only Girl (In the World),” “Die in Your Arms,” “Grenade”), or her first official single (“Put Your Hearts Up”), Grande showed that not only was she a powerhouse vocalist but she had the artistry to match.
Much like with Little Mix, I’ve loved all of Grande’s previous albums and what they brought to the table. Yours Truly was a throwback experience. Whether drawing on the innocence of the ‘50s or the brashness of the ‘90s, Grande cemented herself as a fixture in the industry.
My Everything is the perfect example of an album that is both of its time and timeless. From the sound to the collaborations, everything about this record is staple 2014 pop music. But it’s performed so earnestly, the things it had to say remain relevant. Dangerous Woman was Grande’s foray into her dark, sexy side. However, it also feels the most honest of her discography. Simply put, Grande spent her first three years as a full-blown pop star highlighting her versatility and authenticity.
And then 2018 brought us Sweetener. As with LM5 and Expectations, I felt a sense of foreboding as soon as the title was announced. Sweetener is just not a good album title. However, songs like “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman” gave me hope that perhaps this questionable decision was a fluke. Alas, it was not to be.
But what exactly is the problem here? Grande is plenty honest and vulnerable. The happiness on this album rivals that of her debut. So why does it feel so manufactured?
Part of the problem is, as many have pointed out, Pharrell’s production. At least half this album is a mess and it’s almost entirely his fault. However, even on songs he didn’t produce, Grande seems disconnected and false. Not fake— I don’t get the sense she’s intentionally putting on a front here. She seems false, as if this simply isn’t Grande but someone who looks, sounds, and acts like her. I simply don’t get a sense of who Ariana Grande is from this record.
Each song is an attempt, but there’s no heart here. The only songs I get any sense of passion from are the two big singles, “Everytime,” “Breathin,” Goodnight n Go,” “Get Well Soon,” and the pre-chorus of “Sweetener.” This is a good portion of the album, which should be a good sign. But it isn’t because these songs don’t have any lasting impact.
And, of course, we have to cope with the fact that Grande released the worst song of her career on this record. “The Light is Coming” is a disconnected mess, Minaj only adding to the confusion. It seems like Grande is trying to address her comeback after the tragedy in Manchester, but there’s no sense of hope or vulnerability here. Other times, it seems to be discussing “wokeness.” But in relation to what? Minaj’s verse is hardly relevant at all, just another chance for the rapper to hype herself up and tell us how much better she is than other rappers. It’s a nothing song of disjointed sounds and ideas, punctuated by a man yelling throughout. Not only is this Grande’s worst work, it’s Pharrell’s as well.
As I’ve alluded to, the album isn’t without it’s good moments. The singles are absolute gems. “Goodnight n Go” is one of Grande’s sweetest songs to date. “Everytime” is a classic Ariana Grande song. “Breathin” and “Get Well Soon” are relatable to people who struggle with anxiety. Even “Borderline,” featuring the legendary Missy Elliot, is kind of a bop. Unfortunately, the staying power of most of these tracks is tarnished by the poor quality of Sweetener as a whole. Mark my words, only “No Tears” and “God is a Woman” will stand the test of time.
I really don’t blame Grande for abandoning this era as quickly as it began. Not only is it a mess, but it’s a reminder of her failed whirlwind romance with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. Rather than being a triumph, this album born of a struggle is a struggle in itself. At the end of the day, Ariana Grande’s music is sweeter without additives.
Pop music as we’ve known it is falling by the wayside. Just look at the Billboard charts the last couple years. The women who could revamp and save it are unfortunately putting out underwhelming work at best. Only a few pop records truly stand out these days and usually aren’t given their due. Little Mix, Bebe Rexha, and Ariana Grande chose instead to try and fill the airwaves with noise and repetition. Is it a blessing that these albums underperformed (with the exception of Sweetener, which did well despite the criticism)? I can’t say for sure. What I can say is that these albums are three strikes, and pop music is out. And now, so am I.