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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Ariana Grande channels Mariah Carey on "The Way"

Posted By on 04.23.13 at 02:00 PM

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The 90s retro revival that's been building up in various subcultural corners for the past few years has finally spilled over to the mainstream, with teen pop stars rocking Nirvana tees and Dr. Martens and legions of suburban kids following suit. For the greater pop culture it's mostly been a fashion thing so far, and despite younger artists name-checking 90s artists, the revisiting of a broad range of sounds from the time (from alt rock to rap to R&B) that's obsessed underground music circles hasn't crossed over, and the pop charts are still dominated by hyper-futuristic rap stars and slickly produced country balladeers, with nothing remotely grunge-like in sight.

"The Way," by Ariana Grande and Mac Miller, is the first indication that pop music's ready for its 90s phase. The lead single from Daydreamin, the still-in-the-works debut album by Grande (who has a day job as a Nickelodeon star), it's a piece of R&B-rap crossover bubblegum that couldn't be any more 90s if Miller wore a Coogi sweater in the video. Oh wait, he does:

Producer Harmony Samuels was obviously going for the type of single that was extremely popular in the mid to late 90s where a pop R&B diva flirts chastely with a guest rapper. It may be hard for younger people to understand that was once considered edgy, but Grande fits the role perfectly. The queen of the era's R&B-rap crossovers was Mariah Carey (whose "Fantasy" remix with Ol' Dirty Bastard remains one of the best and most insane examples of the form), and Grande's performance is essentially her best Mariah Carey impression, which as it turns out is dead=-on. She's got Carey's infectiously bubbly personality, breathy voice, and impressive range, and if it's only a B+ Mariah impression that's still more than enough to carry a single.

Samuels doubles down on the retro aspect with a vintage digital piano patch carrying the backing melody, and Miller quotes Big Pun's 1997 single "I'm Not a Player," but no part of the song feels more quintessentially 90s than Grande's impressive melismatic vocal solo towards the end. Whether the pop audience feels the throwback R&B style as much as Grande and company do remains to be seen. "The Way" debuted at number ten, but in its third week on the charts it's slipped all the way down to 37.

Miles Raymer writes about what's on the charts on Tuesday.

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