Pop music in 2016 has been defined by contradictions. On the one hand, mega-selling artists like Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Justin Timberlake jolted the “Billboard” charts with surprise releases that sent listeners scurrying to Tidal and Apple Music, ready to hear the latest missives from the biggest stars; that the songs resulting from those releases managed to sound good-to-great was a bonus. On the other, the top-40 wilds have largely been populated by inert personalities either mimicking trends of yore (overly precocious singer-songwriters, Internet-beloved MCs, R&B hits from 15 years ago, et cetera) or riding social media’s rocket fuel to Blandsville.
For the discerning pop fan, it’s a rough time to put on the radio. This month, however, two of pop’s more compelling acts, Ariana Grande and Fifth Harmony, are releasing albums that both nod to current trends: rhythms and melodies lifted from the Caribbean, gossamer beats, guest spots from MCs that offer extra grit to songs about love and longing. “Dangerous Woman,” Grande’s third album, comes out Friday; “7/27,” from the five-woman vocal group Fifth Harmony, will be released on May 27. The two records are by no means perfect, but the ways in which they hew to and deviate from current trends might give hope to those people who see the potential offered up by the radio.
Both Grande and Fifth Harmony came to prominence on the small screen; Grande was a Nickelodeon staple from 2009 until 2014, appearing on the shows “Victorious” and “Sam and Cat,” while Fifth Harmony’s 2012 creation was chronicled by the now-departed American spinoff of Simon Cowell’s star search “The X Factor.” (The group came in third during the show’s second season; the title “7/27” is a nod to the date the singers were brought together by the show’s higher-ups.)
“Dangerous Woman” is Florida-born Grande’s latest attempt at shedding her teen-comedy mantle. On her last album, 2014’s “My Everything,” she ditched the fizziness of her debut for collaborations with Toronto bad-vibes pusher the Weeknd, hyperactive MC Childish Gambino, and former flavor-of-the-month Iggy Azalea. (“Problem,” the sax-laced collaboration between Grande and Azalea, was eclipsed on the charts that summer by Azalea’s other hit, the electro-fied “Fancy.”)
“Dangerous” continues that maturation process. It’s largely about Ariana finding fulfillment in men; the title track fuses Bond-theme grandeur with an electrified stomp, its lyrics detailing Grande’s push toward bad-girl-dom. Co-written by pop superproducer Max Martin, the track doesn’t sound like much else on the radio right now — it’s slow and heavy, the opposite of Fifth Harmony’s lighter-than-air come-on “Work from Home.” Though it could stand to be about 30 seconds shorter, its sheer chutzpah gives Grande a leg up on her peers.
Much of “Dangerous” was co-produced with Martin and his protégé Ilya, who also worked on “Problem.” The album glides through styles, maintaining a slightly menacing yet sexed-up vibe throughout. “Greedy” places Grande in the middle of an electro-disco party, its gleeful chorus sounding tailor-made for a group singalong in a roller rink; “Side to Side,” a collaboration between Grande and Nicki Minaj, rides a bare-bones reggae beat in a way that lets Grande’s voice shine.
Initially hailed for its resemblance to Mariah Carey’s octave-leaping trill, Grande’s instrument is also sent to a darker place, its higher registers saved for those moments when she sounds like she’s sighing contentedly, as on the Future-assisted paean to erotic satisfaction, “Everyday.” It also folds nicely into the drowsy “I Don’t Care,” echoing the yawning guitar solo that serves as that track’s dénouement.
Fifth Harmony are no strangers to putting the corporeal at the center of their music — “Work from Home,” the group’s minimalist top-10 single, is an “Afternoon Delight” for the Snapchat set, its single-entendre puns pushed along by the group’s unison exhortation to “work, work, work.” But the group’s power has always come from its Spice Girls-like ability to form a massive unit of self-actualization, and the peppy “7/27” has no shortage of that, both lyrically and musically. The storming “That’s My Girl” is a girl-power anthem tailor-made for post-breakup ladies’ nights out, with the members’ five voices coming together, Voltron-style, to pull any bummed-out listener out of their breakup.
Island vibes come into play on the Fetty Wap-assisted “All in My Head (Flex),” which interpolates Mad Cobra’s early-’90s reggae hit “Flex” and gets a jolt from the New Jersey MC’s rugged yawp. The spiky “Not That Kinda Girl,” meanwhile, channels the early-’80s Minneapolis sound in order to send a pointed message to oglers who might have the wrong idea.
Pop albums are strange beasts in the streaming era, when any listener can customize their own “Now” volume by simply launching a playlist. But both “Dangerous Woman” and “7/27” are worthy of exploration beyond their radio-saturating singles. While they can sometimes feel a bit overlong — remember, producers of now, “Purple Rain” and “Thriller” only needed nine tracks to make their points — they also allow the singers at their center to explore opportunities beyond those offered by pop radio’s increasingly confined parameters.