Album Review: Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’

Mike Nied | August 17, 2018 2:11 pm

Ariana Grande soars to new heights on her fourth LP, Sweetener. It has been two years since the pop princess dropped her critically acclaimed Dangerous Woman. In that time, she has weathered tragedy following a terrorist attack at her Manchester concert and the heartbreak of a failed relationship. However, these moments made her stronger. The newly engaged singer rediscovered happiness, and her latest effort celebrates the sweet side of life.

On it, she takes a multitude of risks, and many of them pay off. The 25-year-old kicked off the era with a defiantly uplifting moment on “No Tears Left To Cry.” Reuniting with Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh, the dazzling floorfiller soared to the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 and delivered a pure dose of serotonin. “Right now I’m in a state of mind, I want to be in like all the time,” she declares before picking it up, loving, living and turning it up on the chorus.

She continued her winning streak with “God Is A Woman.” The female empowerment anthem debuted just outside the Top 10 on the Hot 100 and should soar much higher in the coming months. As strong as the singles have been thus far, there is even more promising content on the tracklist. Comprised of 15 songs, it features production credits from the likes of Martin and Salmanzadeh as well as Pharrell Williams, Hit-Boy and TBHits.

There is so much to love on Sweetener. But “Breathin” emerges as the pinnacle and may be one of the most mature anthems of the year. Another contribution from Swede-pop mastermind Salmanzadeh, the graceful cut tackles the siren’s battles with anxiety. “Feel my blood running. Swear the sky’s falling. I know that all this shit’s fabricated. Time goes by, and I can’t control my mind,” she coos as the feathery beats grow.

At the encouragement of a lover, she reminds herself to “just keep breathin and breathin and breathin and breathin.” Rendering the reality of a panic attack with stark honesty, its serious lyricism is set off by the sweeping production.

And the masterpiece feels particularly poignant considering it is followed by “No Tears.” The euphoric lead single offers a conclusion of sorts to her struggles. Transitioning from a promise to keep breathing to declaring that she is in the ideal state of mind offers a glimmer of hope. It also draws some parallels to her career-defining “Into You,” which is always a plus.

If the former two tracks act as companion pieces, then “Better Off,” “Goodnight N Go” and “Pete Davidson” form the perfect trilogy. Charting the end of one relationship and the beginning of another, it concludes with an endearing ode to her fiancé. “I’m better off without him. I’m better off being a wild one,” Grande realizes on the reserved, Hit-Boy-assisted “Better Off.” She interpolates Imogen Heap’s “Goodnight And Go” on the following track, which boasts a production credit from TBHits.

A dreamy bop, it sees her fight off the beginning of a relationship. “Oh, why’d you have to be so cute? It’s impossible to ignore you,” she laments on the chorus before trying to slow things down. “It’s bad enough we get along so well. Just say goodnight and go.” Featuring the album’s most heavenly vocals, it is a gorgeous moment. The interlude “Pete Davidson” provides a fitting conclusion as she leaps into the budding relationship. “My whole life got me ready for you,” she earnestly sings. Big Dick Energy or no, this is so much better than expected and a testament to her joy.

Martin and Salmanzadeh close out their contributions to the project with “Everytime.” Sadly it is not a cover of Britney Spears’ enduring ballad. However, the frustrated midtempo is more evidence that this trio should always work together. “You get high and call on the regular. I get weak and fall like a teenager. Why, oh why does God keep brining me back to you,” she asks over the lush beats. The end result may highlight a toxic relationship, but it is absolute pop perfection.

Sweetener showcases Ari’s willingness to take risks and experiment with her sound. Her collaborations with Pharrell – who produced about half of the LP’s tracks – are amongst the most daring. Some of their work is worth the time in the lab.

“R.E.M.” is one of those moments. Paying tribute to her earliest musical explorations, this puts an even more modern spin on the golden hits from Motown. “Last night, boy, I met you. Yeah, when I was asleep. You’re such a dream to me,” she announces over the electro-kissed beats. The end result is something like a wedding march as the siren floats through her dreamlike reality with a lover. It may have been a Beyonce left-over, but the final product is entirely in the “Baby I” hitmaker’s wheelhouse.

Meanwhile, “Successful” turns a traditional trop-bop on its head with the addition of some more synthetic beats over steel drums. “It feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful,” the diva chants in a surprisingly braggadocios moment. The downright cocky romp is a little out of place, but it is an undeniable earworm.

His best work is on the closer, “Get Well Soon,” which addresses her state of mind after the Manchester bombing. “I felt like I was floating for like 3 months last year & not in a good way,” she said on Twitter. This carries over to the lyrics. “I’m too much in my head, did you notice? My body’s here on Earth, but I’m floating,” she announces. Similar to “Breathin,” this is a shockingly intimate release.

It is all the more powerful considering it ends with 40 seconds of silence in tribute to the attack. Taking the run-time to 5 minutes and 22 seconds, this is in reference to the attack, which took place on May 22. And those moments of silence resonate with as much emotion as any other content on the project.

However, some of their collaborations are not as sweet. “The Light Is Coming” is a particularly glaring misstep. On the mishandled buzz track, Nicki Minaj drops a fierce verse before ceding the beat to her “Bed” partner. The militaristic drumline and slippery synths provide an interesting backdrop, which the diminutive princess rides fairly well. However, a repeated vocal sample incessantly blares underneath her voice. No amount of light can peel back the damage that has on the final product.

The title track is another sonic mindfuck. It serves as the era’s double entendre laden (albeit more mature) sex fest. Transitioning from saccharine keys to a trap banger on the chorus, it relates cooking to the sweeter things in life. But this is no “Side To Side.” The chorus is catchy but sophomoric. No amount of hitting, flipping, twisting, mixing or kissing will make it any more inspired. Pharrell handled all three of the LP’s duets. Although “Blazed and “Borderline” are more successful than “The Light Is Coming,” that is not saying much.

The “Happy” producer hops on the former. It could have been a breezy bop, but feels more like elevator music. A lack of vocal chemistry provides a kiss of death, and this would have been better as a solo. Ari does all the heavy lifting, but even the chorus – “Once I have you I will never let you, never let you go” – isn’t enough to save the track. Missy Elliott drops by to drop a verse about fresh grapes on the latter. But the iconic rapper feels a little sedated in her delivery.

Here is the biggest problem on the album. Even when Pharrell and Ariana find their ideal chemistry, their anthems feel somewhat out of place and dissonant next to the other material. Their work is so jarringly different that it often belongs on an entirely different album. He pushed Ari to her peak creativity, but they should have reined it in a bit at times.

Despite its shortcomings (of which there are admittedly few), Sweetener is one of the superstar’s best efforts to date. The collection’s strongest moments are its lightest points. When her ethereal voice soars over sweet melodies, it is hard to imagine anything better. In the end, the LP is about love. It is about resilience. And it is proof that nothing will get in her way.

Score: 3.5/5

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