Over the past four-to-five years, Ariana Grande turned herself into one of music’s most beloved pop stars. My Everything helped launch her star skyward with a collection of lofty hits, and Dangerous Woman took her even higher, with “Into You” practically becoming a gay anthem overnight.
Her appeal seems to translate to other artists as much as fans themselves. With collaborators ranging from Macy Gray to an at-the-time relatively unknown Cashmere Cat to Miss Demeanor herself, Grande attracts a solid group of talent. Yes, her voice sounds like a silk streamer carried on the wind, but her curious mind makes her an optimal collaborator. The pairing of her vocal talents and sensibilities basically gives Grande free reign to explore any sound she chooses. The sounds of Sweetener draw upon old pals (Ilya and the Max Martin) and fresh pairings (Pharrell), for a mix of electro-R&B, trap, and dance music.
Compared to prior releases, Sweetener presents Grande with a more understated approach. She still goes for the high notes, but these stand out amid a sea of mid-range melodies made sonic sorbet by her aesthetically perfect voice. Her restraint from stratospheric notes lets her focus instead on gliding across swift but understated percussion or layering vocal runs over lush R&B soundscapes. Sweetener comes with a cohesion her prior records lack, tied together by a commitment to a specific set of sounds and messages that fall in line with Grande’s tale and her talent. Though it takes a listen or ten to appreciate, Sweetner lodges itself to your psyche immediately, allowing songs to simmer in your brain until you realize Grande quietly triumphed by taking using a subtler delivery to convey more personal feelings.
It thrills to hear Pharrell’s four-note intros appear throughout the album in a variety of tempos and sounds, with which Grande’s ingenue persona finds a kindred collaborator. “Blazed” and “Successful”, the latter of which has everyone seeing visions of Animal Crossing, straddle the line between cutesy and cultivated, subverting the bunny-eared Grande many expected to triumphantly return for LP4. Though titled after a packet of Splenda, “Sweetener” hints at bedtime pleasures set to a playful romp. Not only is Grande clever, she’s funny, singing about “fuck[ing] on the roof” knowing how it’ll make her fans howl.
Midway through the record we hear from her trusted Swedish hitmakers, delivering something more akin to the stadium pop Grande built a fanbase off of over the years. “Everytime” finds her circling back to a lover over an a sea of trap sounds, while “Breathin” dances through the onset of a panic attack. The anthemic “No Tears Left to Cry” completes the Swede-pop trilogy, Grande having made it through stronger than before.
“Borderline” slides you back into Pharrell-ville for a brief if awkward moment; Grande keeps up with the beat, but the droning synths and a phoned-in Missy Elliott make the song feel like a rushed addition. Coming in like “Twentysomething”, “Better Off” slows the pace again, giving Grande time to process before the big one, the Imogen Heap-sampled “Goodnight N Go”. A towering kiss-off, “Goodnight N Go” showcases the ways hip-hop sensibilities, such as 808s, blend with pop’s penchant for melodies, a pairing that comes forth in Pop 2’s rougher edges or Astroworld’s harmonic ease. Listening back to My Everything cuts like “Be My Baby”, “Hands On Me”, or really any track in between them, it makes you wonder why Sweetener surprised so many fans.
“Pete Davidson” continues in the hip-pop vein, a brief but heartfilled dedication of affection that really could apply to anyone who gives you feelings. However, her affection for others comes second to the need for self-love, a cause she champions on “Get Well Soon”. Rather than chide or implore you into self-care, “Get Well Soon” reminds you self-care requires an effort for an enormous payoff: peace of mind.
Because it deviates from what fans expected, Sweetener takes a couple rotations to sink in, but if you give it time, you’ll see Ariana Grande really threw it down when she took down her ponytail. B PLUS