Ariana Grande is an unexpected rookie-of-the-year candidate, a chaste-seeming Nickelodeon star whose "The Way" with Mac Miller rebirthed Big Pun's "Still Not a Player" pianos as an anthem for '90s babies, rather than late-'90s clubgoers. Her vocal style is reminiscient of Mariah Carey[ (including an ability to cram many, many words into elongated melodic lines), which is no small praise. In addition to the obvious Mariah connection, her music makes quite literal '90s references throughout: the refixed Lil Kim beat on "Right There" (which suggests Big Sean might have a gift for R&B guest spots), or the "Real Love" remake "Lovin' It," possibly the album's best track.
But despite the clear love of '90s hip-hop source material, the actual production and songwriting (which includes assists from R&B legend Babyface) have an unashamed immediacy more reminiscient of late-'90s/early-'00s pop music. There's a tendency to layer hooks-on-hooks, and a smooth audio aesthetic that disguises all the moving parts in one efficient sunshine machine. There's an exuberant breeziness, a sugary generosity that prompted Gawker's Rich Juzwiak to describe the album—as a compliment, primarily—as the "Pizza Hut" of R&B records. —David Drake