deep dives

To Whom Does Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ Owe Its Sound?

Photo: Vevo

Ariana Grande’s Sweetener is less than six months old, but Thank U, Next, the announced title of her fifth studio album, is already on the books. Ari is moving into her next era, or eschewing the old-school sensibilities of eras altogether — not unlike other pop juggernauts such as Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Lorde. “I don’t want to conform to the pop star agenda,” she told Billboard early last month, expressing her longing for something much, much simpler. “I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.” Like with “Thank U, Next,” intimacy with fans was key to the release of “7 Rings.” Grande teased the song over a couple weeks, leaving hints via Twitter and Instagram. The song and video dropped together last Friday, streamed live on Youtube at midnight ET. The running chat box in the corner — like Twitter and probably a lot of group chats — was a party. “WE MADE IT YALL,” said one user; “This is so good already omg,” said another, just 34 seconds in. As the song settled into its beat another user interjected, “Rap game she coming.”

The music video for “7 Rings,” like Grande’s other recent collaborations with director Hannah Lux Davis (“Into You,” “Breathin,” “Thank U, Next”), is glossy, cool-toned, and scenic, letting a germ of an idea — in this case the real-life tale of a tipsy Tiffany’s shopping spree — unfold into a rotating set of panoramic vibes and lewks. Pink gloss and pink Cadillacs, neon-illuminated interiors, cookies, a nod to James Turrell, and plenty of Champagne — just to name a few of the video’s favorite things.

But as Friday began in earnest, some of the more conspicuous features of “7 Rings” — both song and video — raised some eyebrows. The saucy hook, “ayy” flow, and overall trap vibes got people querying what appears to be uncharted territory in the artist’s sound. The video’s prismatic visuals, bearing all traces of rapper couture and baby-girl aesthetics, seemed to intensify the discontinuity. In a now-deleted video posted to Twitter and Instagram, New York rapper Princess Nokia demonstrated the resemblance between “7 Rings” and the song “Mine” off the rapper’s 2017 album 1992 Deluxe. “Doesn’t that sound familiar to you? ‘Cause that sound really familiar to me,” she says to the camera. “Ain’t that the song I made about brown women and their hair? Sounds about white.” (Not long after, Toronto producer Krs. accused Nokia of stealing that very same hook herself.) 2 Chainz fans also noticed the hook’s similarity to the 2011 2 Chainz song “Spend It.” The pink-coated architecture in the “7 Rings” video is of kin to his pink trap-house installation, used to promote his 2017 album Pretty Girls Like Trap Music and rendered on its cover. Others noticed a cadence close to “Pretty Girl Swag,” the song also coincidentally back in the air thanks to a viral meme. Soulja Boy, already mired in a somewhat crisis of underappreciated influence, requested credit for the perceived contribution on Twitter. “Lol stop stealing my swag. Word,” he said, quote-tweeting Grande directly. “You’re a thief.” The “A-word” — the bane of pop-cultural existence since those fateful 2013 VMAs — made its dreaded return. Is this an act of appropriation, or worse, outright theft?

Appropriation or not is the wrong question. If the question is whether or not “7 Rings” owes its existence to appropriation, then the answer is yes and thank God for it — the answer will always be some version of “yes” for every song as long as we all continue to live in society. If the question is whether or not “7 Rings” owes its look and sound to the vibrance of black and brown and East Asian (Japanese) aesthetics, then the answer, too, is yes. Whether any of these gestures ought be raised to the level of offense is a slipperier matter.

Since the 1980s, the conspicuous acceleration of interpolary practices in recorded music — namely rap — has left behind what should seem like cut-and-dried legalities. If you use it, clear it, or spend a lot of money wishing you had. This remains the truth — artists, or their label, still need clearance to sample even a fraction of someone else’s song on their own, though crucially, permission is given by whomever owns song rights (which may or may not be the person responsible for its creation). At one point during the sloppy rollout of Queen last summer, Nicki Minaj implored fans to pester Tracy Chapman on her behalf in the interest of clearing a sample for the song. Though taken off the album, “Sorry,” featuring Nas and sampling Chapman’s “Baby Can I Hold You,” was promoted and played on Hot 97, allegedly with the blessing of Nicki’s team. Chapman returned with a lawsuit. Around the same time TMZ reported that rapper M.O.S. was suing Migos and Capitol Records for infringement over the song “Walk It Like I Talk It” featuring Drake. In an interview with XXL, Quavo brushed off the claim. “Man, that shit’s an old saying, man. We been saying ‘Walk it, talk it.’”

And if the matter of sampling is still less than absolute, that makes further ambiguous the whole range of reproducible lyrical devices and catchphrases, portable rhythms, and that even more dubiously trademarked sonic characteristic called flow. What’s copyright to a vibe? As NYU professor Jeff Peretz told Vulture, that gray area is becoming more contentious — the 2015 ruling against Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines” implicates the practice of reconstructing rhythms without sampling, the means by which Pharrell seemingly imitated Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” Until this case, said Peretz, “rhythm hasn’t been taken as seriously [in copyright law].” Melodies are absolutely litigious, but style is hard to copyright.

Which leaves the moral and cultural question per usual: appropriation or “appreciation”? Ultimately, these labels describe the same gesture, differing as a matter of perceived intent and public taste. In either case something has been borrowed, perhaps without intent or — as is common in the age of the everywhere-internet — knowledge of from whence it came.

Ariana is no stranger to amalgamative sound. In her post-Victorious debut, the singer and songwriter staked her aesthetic commitments firmly in the genre of R&B-inflected pop, citing idols such as Gloria Estefan, India.Arie, Whitney Houston, Brandy, and Mariah Carey, whom she called “[her] favorite human being on the planet” in a 2012 interview. These influences are apparent on 2013’s Yours Truly, an album that counts several veteran and emerging R&B songwriters and producers among its credits, including Babyface, Sevyn Streeter, Lonny Bereal, Jordin Sparks, J.Que, Harmony Samuels, and Brenda Russell (in addition to Grande herself). While her sophomore My Everything is likely most remembered for venturing into electronic influences on singles like “One Last Time” and “Break Free” (featuring Zedd), the album remains true to Grande’s R&B inclinations, found in songs like “Best Mistake,” “Be My Baby,” and “Break Your Heart Right Back” (featuring Childish Gambino and crediting songwriters Bernard Edwards, Nile Rodgers, Stevie J, Biggie Smalls, Diddy, and Ma$e for the sample of “Mo Money Mo Problems” that in turn samples Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out”).

By Dangerous Woman, Grande had slipped into what ought to be known as her signature talent, convening the best of various genres and sonic traditions in singularly frictionless (yet still divaistic) vocals — collaborating seamlessly with Nicki Minaj (“Side to Side”), Lil Wayne (“Let Me Love You”), Macy Gray (“Leave Me Lonely”), and Future (“Everyday”). Sweetener fortifies the recipe, incorporating additional ayy-like flows, trap rhythms, and fast talk with a vernacular as digital as it is urban (“When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing,” et al.). But unlike Miley or Sam Smith, pop acts with histories of playing fast and loose with black musical traditions that sound ill-fitted, there’s no missing embrace here. Much like another superstar whose R&B-isms are long melded to his musical ear, Grande has a long-standing relationship with black music of a kind. Not just her credits, but her cadences and harmonies and vocal flourishes demonstrate study and commitment. In that vein, “7 Rings” could suggest an evolution or deviation in her sound as popular black music, too, evolves and deviates. In a tweet sent the day after the song and video’s release, Grande praised friends and collaborators Tayla Parx, Victoria Monét, NJOMZA, and Kaydence, without whom she “wouldn’t have made this celebratory bop.” “7 Rings,” like any music worth listening to, was not just a labor of love, but a collective effort.

The fusion is, admittedly, not as coherent as in singles past. The bad-bitch vernacular accumulates, at times, like a multicar pileup. Certain lyrical phrases, like “When you see them racks, they stacked up like my ass,” seem cut for someone of a more bombastic size. Though Grande made the long ponytail hers, the Rapunzel weave paired with the hotly contested “gee thanks, just bought it” lyric, sounds strange not because white girls don’t also purchase their hair, but because they haven’t — until now, perhaps — fashioned a language for talking about it, preferring to live in the illusion (but trust me, we all know what’s what).

And yet, it’s hard to chastise “7 Rings” compared to less or unforgivable equivalents heard from Meghan Trainor or Taylor Swift or Katy Perry these days. The truth is that in the new millennium, the aesthetics of pop, of female empowerment, of shining, of flossin’, of poppin’, are now indistinguishable from the look, sound, and language of hip-hop culture.

At least the song is good and fun. Call it an “appropriation bop” if so inclined. (But then again, aren’t they all?)

To Whom Does Ariana Grande’s ‘7 Rings’ Owe Its Sound?