Hip-hop rules the world right now. It rules every playlist, every radio station, every new slang term, every viral video, and every dance craze. So, for pop superstar, Ariana Grande, launching a comeback was going to be more difficult this time around. From her debut album, Yours Truly, in 2013, Grande has quickly risen to upper echelon of pop titans. Amassing four Grammy nominations, 2 #1 albums, and nine top ten singles in around five years, Grande’s star has been, and still is, exploding. In 2017, when a suicide bomber attacked her Manchester concert on the ‘Dangerous Woman World Tour,’ Grande came back stronger than ever with One Love Manchester and put her fourth record on hold.
For this album, her fourth in five years, Ariana linked up with long-time collaborator, Tommy Brown, and also reunited with the craftsmen behind some of her biggest hits, Max Martin, Ilya, and Savan Kotecha. Nevertheless, the most interesting collaborator on this album was the legendary Pharrell who joined the production team after the Manchester attack. Preceded by the delectable slice of pop perfection that is “No Tears Left to Cry,” (which I reviewed here) and the otherworldly “God is a woman” (which I also reviewed here), Sweetener seemed on track to continue Ariana’s streak of exceptional pop albums. Fourth albums are always tricky for artists. Think Beyoncé’s 4, Rihanna’s Rated R, Katy Perry’s Witness, and Lady Gaga’s Joanne (which I reviewed here). When a pop star reaches their fourth record, they normally change their sound and image and garner a less-than-enthusiastic response from the general public. With Sweetener‘s sole promotional single, “The Light Is Coming (feat. Nicki Minaj),” Ariana gave a sneak peek into the new sound she was moving towards on her new record. “The Light,” which I reviewed here, notched her lowest peak for a promotional single ever, but more importantly, it showed artistic progression which was needed at this point in her career.
Now, after a four-month-long promotional rollout, Sweetener is here.
Ariana Grande knows how to open an album. Whether it’s through lush intros or rousing ballads (“Honeymoon Avenue,” “Moonlight”), she always starts off with a rush of energy and conviction. Things are no different with Sweetener, Ariana’s angelic acapella vocals float over a short cover of The Four Seasons “An Angel Cried.” While Ariana sounds ethereal and her vocal performance is effortless, Max Martin overproduced her voice to the point where it sounds a tad processed. Nevertheless, this intro is quintessential Ariana Grande. From there, Ariana rips through a triad of intricate Pharrell-produced tracks. Commencing with “blazed,” the first full-length song on Sweetener, Ariana’s vocal arrangement, and distinct talent of self-harmonization shine with a new sense of maturity. Ariana sounds comfortable on Sweetener; she belted endlessly on her first three albums, and she doesn’t need to anymore. In this first triumvirate of Sweetener tracks, Ariana plays with different tones and her vocals sound smoother than ever. On the final track of the opening trio, “R.E.M.,” Arina’s voice cultivates a whimsical and romantic universe of harmonies and love. She displays the immense growth and development of her lower register on the hook of “R.E.M.” The amount of control and ease that Ariana exudes on this track, and all of Sweetener at that, is incredibly impressive.
Ariana sounds truly happy on this album. While her previous records ranged from solid to great and were brimming with pop bangers, she often sounded a bit sterile. On Sweetener, however, Ariana sounds more comfortable than ever over Pharrell’s funky and quirky productions and Max Martin’s more urban-leaning and trap-influenced records. Both of the album’s singles so far, “No Tears” and “God” were produced by Max Martin & Co., and that production team continues their excellent run of pop hits with “breathin,” and “everytime.” While the former is a more sophisticated version of 2016’s “Into You,” the latter is the second-closest thing to a ballad on Sweetener. Backed by a disco-influenced trap-pop beat, Ariana laments over a relationship erupting with reckless love. After listening to Ariana’s full discography, her tendency to favor soul and R&B-influenced records is evident; her voice sounds at home there and she emotes better in those genres. Pharrell seems to have noticed that as well. On “borderline” and “successful,” both of which Pharrell produced, Ariana’s tone recalls janet.-era Janet Jackson and her voice flutters and skips across funky and impassioned instrumentals. Unfortunately, those two songs are the weakest on the album. Lyrically, “successful” is underwhelming and the production outshines Ariana; on “borderline,” Missy Elliott’s guest verse is an embarrassment and there are about 10 too many adlibs on the track.
Yours Truly, Ariana’s 2013 debut album, launched her into the pop universe, and that album featured two standout productions by Tommy Brown. The two reconnected on 2014’s My Everything, the entirety of her 2015 Christmas EP, Christmas Kisses, and several tracks on 2016’s Dangerous Woman. On this new record, Tommy Brown produces the sauntering “better off” and the endearing ode to her fiancé, “pete davidson.” Regardless, his work on “goodnight n go,” a re-work of the Imogen Heap original, is absolutely gorgeous. Despite Ariana delving deep into R&B and trap (with hints of funk, disco, and gospel), she still amalgamates everything together with her keen pop music sensibilities. For example, on the titular track, Ariana blends what seems to be three different tracks together into one euphonious marriage of a song. Despite the various highs and the unfortunate lows, the true apex of Sweetener is the gloriously monumental “get well soon.” On the closing track, a cascading choir of layered Ariana Grande vocals belt over finger snaps and sparse piano. The song, a simultaneous audio treatment for anxiety and a tribute to the beautiful souls lost in Manchester, is easily one of Grande’s defining songs, a perfect ending for her defining album.
Sweetener is the album Ariana always wanted to make, but it feels like she only scrapes the surface of the album she was born to craft. Nevertheless, Sweetener is an incredible achievement, an album that marks new artistic ground for her while still building on her status as a pop titan. Take a listen, a few listens, because everyone needs a little bit of Sweetener in their lives.
Key Tracks: “R.E.M.,” “get well soon,” “breathin,” “everytime”