Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share on Google+ Share on Reddit Share on Pinterest Share on Linkedin Share on Tumblr After winning “America’s Got Talent” in 2016 at age 12, Grace VanderWaal was set up to become the next factory-made pop star or to disappear into the bottom of the charts and fizzle. Her first full-length Just the Beginning makes the case that she’ll do neither. The album certainly expands beyond her tween-with-a-ukulele sound, but the production makes sense, and the lyrics feel natural to VanderWaal. Rather than a trek into a how a television show and its producers can cash in on a child, we might be seeing (admittedly not for the first time) how a genuine pop artist can come through the most mainstream of channels. Much of the strength of the album ostensibly lies in VanderWaal’s writing. She’s credited as the writer or co-writer on all these tracks and it rarely feels like an adult’s imagining of VanderWaal’s age. The album, for the most part, sounds like the work of a 13-year-old, albeit a genuinely gifted one. The topics and thoughts resonate at that age without giving into juvenilia; the occasional overreaches to an imagined adult view of the world mirror the actual approach of adolescents. The stakes are particularly high in adolescents, and losing those stakes later life isn’t necessarily a sign of maturity. The writing’s not perfect. “Talk Good” recounts not VanderWaal’s grammatical struggles but the challenge of finding just the right thing to say, of always freezing, of (while frozen) crashing and burning in verbal exchanges. The hook becomes more grating than catchy, and relying on a silly joke feels less David Sedaris and more like a toss-off that’s been amplified too far. That track’s the only true misstep on the record, though. Mostly what we see is VanderWaal starting to come into her own. She sounds her best when she’s confident, which is most of the time. “City Song,” though sequenced late in the album, works as a big-voiced processional, a welcoming to a new world. “Just a Crush” lets her be a kid and still be strong, and when both of those elements mix with the lightheartedness of the song (immediately discrediting any responses about friend zoning or the like), it’s a wonderful entry into her world. “Burned” flips that coin. It pushes into melodrama, with its bigger arrangement and fiery intensity. The vocals shouldn’t work for VanderWaal, but they do. She’ll be well served to keep Alicia Keys rather than Taylor Swift in mind as she pursues this style (the Swift comparisons have dogged her so far for superficial reasons, but they’ll hopefully drop). It might not be a relevant point, though. VanderWaal, for all her ability to begin establishing herself on Just the Beginning recognizes the honesty of the album title, and she’s exploring different styles. She’s still comfortable in her indie-folk, and the ukulele’s charm remains, but she’s willing to go bigger. Single “So Much More Than This” feels like her musical sweet spot at this point. A little strumming, a little pop production, and a healthy amount of teenaged maturity. VanderWaal’s brushing off the bits that don’t matter. As the dirt drops from her shoulders, it’s an optimistic sound rather than a reactive or passive aggressive number. “Moonlight” mixes a bouncy strum with an upbeat production to look at someone “about to break.” There’s some deep hurt here, but some persistence, too, and VanderWaal’s ability to move through a friend’s fall makes for a compelling song. That she has the sense not to oversing it shows her gifts as an artist. As VanderWaal develops into her own sort of pop star, she’ll further refine her sound, but she’s already showing her clarity in her songwriting. Her growth will likely be an interesting process worth watching, and if, similar to what Simon Cowell told her, she sticks to being herself, there’s some compelling music on the way.