Ariana Grande has had a sterling year-and-a-quarter, releasing the squeakily soulful “Sweetener” album in August 2018, then the equally sleek, freer and self-empowered “Thank U, Next” six months later. That’s saying nothing of Grande telling off 2019’s Grammy producers (don’t tell Ariana what songs she can and can’t perform), becoming the youngest artist to headline a Coachella, then Lollapalooza, all the while maintaining multi-chart topping status. All that, and still, nothing spells respect (or, at the very least, industry clout) like netting the executive producer slot for a major studio film’s soundtrack and nabbing what Grande Instagrammed was “many phenomenal, bad ass mf women,” all up for what she called a “poppy, mildly trappy at times, action-filled dream of a soundtrack.”
Even if it is another “Charlie’s Angels” retread, it’s a’ight.
The tongue-in-cheek, femme-empowered, Aaron Spelling detective series of the ’70s that became a snarky 2000 action flick has, in its 2019 iteration, a female director in Elizabeth Banks, who just happens to be one of the film’s Bosleys. Grande works that theme like a rib for her curatorial soundtrack’s executive producer role — a gig she shares with longtime collaborator Savan Kotecha and manager Scooter Braun — and welcomes a Murderer’s Row of prominent woman artists from the last 40 years to play in her and Charlie’s sandbox. Into that cool collection, Grande insinuates herself five times out of 11, on her own for one of those but otherwise in collaboration with fellow marquee superstars like Miley Cyrus, Lana Del Rey and Nicki Minaj and newbies such as Normani.
That everything on this “Charlie’s Angels” soundtrack sounds exactly her — like an highly oxygenated, less epically pop extension of “Thank U, Next,” with its slinky entanglement of the big millennial self, the sexual, the romantic, the romanticized and, now, the action-packed — is both a blessing and a curse.
The ragingly angst-laden urgency of song craft that made Grande’s last two albums grand is here, to an extent, but mostly in the soundtrack’s rush to trap overdrive, and in accordance with the fight-and-flight giddiness and kiddish-ness of the images on the screen.
For the sake of argument, let’s start with one of Grande’s weakest contributions, the soundtrack’s first single and kinda-sorta theme song, the bell-bonging “Don’t Call Me Angel,” sung with Miley and Lana. The nu-pop threesome mold Ann-Margret’s old-fashioned “kitten with a whip” routine into something limply pernicious, dimly trap-ist and way cliché-ridden. Lines like “Keep my name out your mouth” and “I drop it down, I pick it up, I back it off the county line / I fell from heaven, now I’m living like a devil” are painful. And hearing Grande waste her wail, Miley squander her growl (and sound like Rihanna’s “Diamonds” at the same time), and Lana… well, I don’t even know where Lana is on this track… is a shame of monumental proportions.
OK, maybe blame Bosley for this one.
Grande only does slightly better and nearly fritters away the talents of the legendary Chaka Khan on the torrid, yet still turgid, “Nobody.” Each woman inflicting the full force of her vocal heights on any track is a joyful exercise, but the track itself is empty — not enough meat for Grande, let alone the mighty Khan. One gentle critique that lends weight to this hunch comes from Khan herself in Oprah mag, where Chaka called her “Charlie” cut “a cute song,” before stating “It’s not gonna change the world, okay?” Dag, Chakakhanchakakhan.
Things get better and less brassy/shrill on “Bad to You,” Grande’s teaming with Minaj and one-time Fifth Harmony vocalist Normani. A softly fluid reggae lilt and a throbbing, subtle dub production give each songstress her own space and room to nestle and hum on this anthemic cut. This Ilya-co-produced track was initially a collaboration between Grande and Dua Lipa (the track’s co-writer) but, due to timing issues with Lipa’s upcoming new work, Nicki and Normani jumped into the breach and saved this sweet, spare melody. While Normani and Grande gently serpentine toward a high trilling crown, Minaj’s low, baritone purr intoning lines such as “Why are you only good to me / When I’m bad to you?” is almost worth the price of soundtrack admission.
Though not a new song (it first appeared on Snapchat in 2016), Grande’s sand-dancing “She Got Her Own” duet with songwriter-singer Victoria Monét fits snugly in the hall of the “Angels.” Monét bobs, weaves, coos, tweaks cadences, rushes phrases and mumble-swallows lines like “you know, you know” just like the soundtrack’s boss. Which is OK.
When it comes to her own contributions, Grande saved the best for her own solo song, “How I Look on You.” If any track here was something to be considered “cinematic,” it is this slithering soliloquy with its John Barry-like intro oomph and clicking sinister guitar. Moving through the track and its rubbery rhythm is Grande at her most cosmopolitan, sticking to a deeper, winnowing baritone until punctuating the chorus (“I don’t believe no one no more / Boy, show me what you’re in it for / Been on the low when it comes to love / Said, do you like how I look or just how I look on you”) with an exquisite set of high notes. If the James Bond producers looking for the next theme song voice, Grande is more than up for the task.
Giving over the first song on her first film soundtrack to the underrated Kash Doll and guests Alma, Kim Petras and Stefflon Don is as generous as that introductory track, “How It’s Done” (co-written by Grande), is energetic and melodically ascending. Even if the rest of the album was dross, this airy, jazzy track has a magical lift that steers what follows. Plus, it starts off sounding like “Vehicle” from the Ides Of March, without the marching band horniness. What’s not to love?
While “Eyes Off You” from M-22 and friends is quality, glossy, high-energy house-disco the likes of which would make Bobby O swoon (and a handsome lead in to a “Gigamesh Remix” of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls”), Brazilian singer Anitta — an Ariana Grande lookalike if ever there was — gives “Charlie” a Latin-language shake and a much-needed softened sexuality with “Pantera.”
Grande’s “Charlie’s Angel” isn’t a classic soundtrack, or classic Ariana, but an assemblage that falls more in line with the film’s merely millennial take on themes of crime and passion and empowerment than anything else. Sonically, it’s a step down down from her advances of the last 15 months. But as a show of power, it’s a handsome first step.