Artist: Ariana Grande feat Iggy Azalea
US chart peak: 2
Release date: April 28, 2014
Writers: Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, Ilya Salmanzadeh, Amethyst Kelly
Producers: Max Martin, Shellback, Ilya, Peter Carlsson
Quintessential Max moment: The multiple hooks in the verses allowing the chorus to be sparse
Video synopsis: ‘Retro’
Diminutive donut protestor Ariana Grande doesn’t hang about when it comes to making the old pop music. Just a month after the release of her (very good) debut album ‘Yours Truly’ in 2013 she announced she’d already started work on its follow-up alongside some of the same producers from that album, ie Babyface and Harmony Samuels. At some point her management/A&R/brother Frankie/who knows suggested broadening out the creative minds to include current hitmakers such as Ryan Tedder, Benny Blanco and, well, Max Martin.
At another point during the creation of what would become ‘My Everything’ Grande also wound up in the studio with Professional Dickhead Chris Brown and the pair recorded a duet called ‘Don’t Be Gone Too Long’. Fortunately the whole thing was scrapped (after the video had already leaked) because Brown was sent to prison (finally), which actually meant Grande was free to move her new album campaign – and her move into proper poster territory – forward by a few months. During a hastily organised live stream after the Brown video premiere was cancelled Grande ‘previewed’ four songs from the album, before announcing two days later that ‘Problem’ was now coming sooner than expected.
So thanks to Chris Brown for that at least because ‘Problem’, despite the appearance of Australia’s least convincing human Iggy Azalea, is a career-redefining, popstar-launching, radio-slaying behemoth of epic proportions. For one thing, it opens with a popstar laughing which, as ‘Wannabe’ taught us twenty years ago, is an ideal situation. It also features horns which, when used correctly, are basically catnip for general brilliance (when used badly it’s just retro mulch isn’t it). Obviously the key thing about ‘Problem’ is that all the proper hooks are either in the verses or that lovely ascending pre-chorus bit, with the space where the chorus should be just left to (an uncredited) Big Sean to whisper sweet nothings. It tricks you into wanting the chorus to explode but then feeling a bit giddy with the fact that nothing really happens and we actually drop down to the chorus rather than lift upwards as per.
Even Iggy’s verse is above average, with Max ‘et al’ buffering her with some delicate electro squiggles and a sort of alarm sound that makes the whole thing feel quite exciting. When those horns join in towards the end of her bit you forget completely that you’re listening to possible the world’s second worst rapper.
The “one last problem without you” line was magicked up by the ever wonderful Savan Kotecha who takes inspiration for a lot of his lyrics from daytime TV and women’s magazines (there’s some chat about all that here).
“I keep a list of titles and phrases in my phone that I hear or read from a movie or a magazine,” he told Mic. “And then, a lot of the times, I build a melody around them. The line ‘one less problem without you’ was inspired by something I read in Cosmopolitan.”
For Grande the song is about “the feeling of being absolutely terrified to re-approach a relationship that’s gone sour – but you want to more than anything.” WALK AWAY BABES, IT WILL NEVER WORK OUT.