Following the release of her debut album ‘Yours Truly’ in 2013, the then 20-year-old Ariana Grande told The New York Times: “I wanted to be a little ’50s pinup girl – a good girl, goody two shoes, Audrey Hepburn, classic, safe, feminine, soft, girlie.” While that was pretty unconventional and mature in its own right in an era that celebrates promiscuity and rebelliousness, it doesn’t exactly predict the feminist spirit of her empowering 2015 Instagram essay or ‘God is a woman’, the anthemic second single and greatest highlight from her new album, ‘Sweetener’. As an already popular Nickelodeon actress, Grande had other things to worry about, namely kickstarting a music career independent of her hit show ‘Victorious’ without getting pigeonholed into the bubblegum pop genre. Though her debut did end up sounding pretty safe by traditional standards, it succeeded in breaking away from the path that was already created for her. Since then, unlike Disney stars such as Miley Cyrus, who has had to go through various weird and often embarrassingly ostentatious phases, Grande has managed not only to showcase her truly impressive voice but to slowly and steadily grow an artistic one.
Flash forward to 2018, and a profile by TIME magazine opens with a simple but certainly more meaningful statement: “Ariana Grande is happy, and it’s important to her that people know that.” Following the terrorist attack in May 2017 that killed 22 people and injured hundreds of others in one of her own concerts, as well as her tumultuous break up with rapper Mac Miller, you’d expect her new album to be a long string of somber ballads. And yet, when the first single, ‘no tears left to cry’, was released, it was anything but a tear-jerker: “Right now, I’m in a state of mind/ I wanna be in, like, all the time,” she proclaims before the track picks up and turns into a classic, infectious dance-pop gem. It’s not like those tragic events and personal tragedies didn’t affect her deeply, or that she doesn’t get emotional about it anymore. But she showed patience and strength, taking some time away from the public eye and the studio to focus on her mental health and spend time with family, which in turn helped her get a clearer vision of her next project. As a mainstream pop singer, she understands that one of the most powerful things that good pop music can do is, as she put it in a recent Beats 1 interview, “give people a hug, musically.”
Ariana Grande has always been known for her joyful songs, but ‘Sweetener’ radiates a brand of optimism that feels wholly and delightfully sincere. They are also, here more than anywhere else, her songs – despite the huge role that producers like Max Martin, Savan Kotecha, and Pharrell Williams have in forming their sound, Grande was more involved in the songwriting process than ever before. The talent had always been there, but on her new album she develops and displays her own musical identity beyond her influences. She’s also not afraid to experiment, and it pays off: ‘the light is coming’ featuring Nicki Minaj is probably the most interesting moment on the album, fuelled by an absurdly eccentric beat and elevated by its subtle political subtext. The track’s brilliantly repetitive chorus, “The light is coming to take back everything the darkness stole,” might as well be the album’s tagline, complicated by the strangely ominous way it’s delivered.
‘Sweetener’ sees Ariana Grande leaving her comfort zone, but it also feels like she’s more at home than ever. It showcases an artist at her most self-assured and self-aware, even if it’s not brimming with as many energetic, well-crafted pop hits as her previous album, ‘Dangerous Woman’. The singles that I’ve mentioned do sound big and ambitious, but the rest of the album is mostly filled with pleasantly laid-back, sweet tunes that to some fans may come off as underwhelming, despite how liberating they actually are. Many of them are sugary yet heartfelt love songs that express the feelings of warmth that come with a new relationship – Grande started dating SNL comedian Pete Davidson in 2018 and the couple is already engaged. On the memorable ‘R.E.M.’, Grande’s wonderfully restrained delivery and Williams’ dreamy production – all the way to the charmingly harmonized “bum-bum-bum”s – paint a touching, tender portrait of infatuation.
Unfortunately, Pharrell Williams’ production is also the one thing that sets the record back at certain points – though not as unfittingly disastrous as it was on Justin Timberlake’s ‘Man of the Woods’, it often detracts from the album’s personality and flow. The title track is perhaps the lowest moment on the album, awkward and blatantly superficial, while ‘blazed’ and ‘borderline’ don’t add much to the mix either. There are fun elements to his sound, like the playful tones on ‘successful’ that are reminiscent of an old Nintendo soundtrack, but his songwriting risks underutilizing Grande’s capabilities, without ever overshadowing them.
Althought the list of co-writers, including TB-Hits, Scootie, and Michael Foster, becomes longer as the record progresses, the songs become more low-key. There’s surprising intimacy in songs like ‘better off’, in which she comes to terms with the dysfunctional nature of her past relationship, or ‘goodnight n’ go’, where Grande puts her own unique spin on Imogen Heap‘s ‘Goodnight and Go’, adorning it with CHVRCHES-like synths and a neon-drenched instrumental hook. By comparison, a track like ‘everytime’, detailing the difficulties of having to deal with someone else’s substance abuse and the temptation of going back to them, is tense and generic in its catchy trap-leaning stylings.
The delightfully calm, mellower approach goes to show what comes with setting yourself free and allowing your sound to mature. “I’ma be happy, happy, yeah,” she repeats in a hushed voice on the short personal love letter that is ‘pete davidson’. And sure, the two tracks bookending the record do bring everything into context: closer ‘get well soon’ even allows for 40 seconds of silence, extending the track length to 5:22 to commemorate the date of the attack, May 22nd. But despite the pain that surrounds it, ‘Sweetener’ is, more than anything, a reflection of Grande’s personal healing process. It’s dedicated to spreading a message of positivity, which is probably what popular music is all about, after all.