Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” lets you know, in its very first verse, that it’s copying. “Breakfast at Tiffany’s and bottles of bubbles / Girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble,” she sings in place of the “Raindrops on roses / and whiskers on kittens” made famous by Rodgers and Hammerstein, who are listed among the 10 songwriters for the pop star’s latest single.
But this is not an Austrian Alps show tune. It’s a rap and R&B song, inspired by—or taking from—black artists. For the chorus, a marching-formation beat kicks in and Grande whispers, in a clipped rhythm, “I want it, I got it, I want it, I got it.” In the bridge, she raps in a kind of ranging, liquid style reminiscent of Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj’s “Flawless (Remix),” with a reference to The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme the Loot.” After the single was released last Friday, two rappers—Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy—posted videos accusing Grande of stealing their flows. 2 Chainz suggested the music video ripped off the pink trap house he set up as a promotional and public-health effort in Atlanta, and other people noted similarities with his song “Spend It.”
Whether Grande has a serious plagiarism scandal on her hands is unclear. Rap flows—particular verbal rhythms and rhyme patterns—can be viral and collaborative things, bubbling up as one emcee’s innovation then quickly becoming ubiquitous. To my ear, Grande’s delivery and lyrics do recall all the songs “7 Rings” has been compared to, but not so precisely that you can bet on a slam-dunk copyright-infringement case against her. Then again, we’re living in the era after the “Blurred Lines” judgment, which determined that the “feel” of a song can be actionable. A lawyer just has to convince a jury.