People were waiting for Ariana Grande’s fourth album, a collection of music that would be inextricably tied to the tragic terrorist attack at her Dangerous Woman tour in the city of Manchester last year. Though understandably devastated by the event, Grande bravely returned to put on a benefit concert to honor her fans and bring everyone together. She then dropped off of social media, only offering a cryptic teaser that hinted at new music featuring her heavenly vocals with the caption “see you next year.” As the year rolled on, albums and singles came and went. Though still largely out of sight, rumors continued to pop up that Grande was prepping something big, her most personal album yet according to industry insiders. By the time the singer started teasing lead single “no tears left to cry,” fans were insatiable, and all signs seemed to point to a power ballad about moving past tragedy that would no doubt showcase Grande’s soaring voice. Instead, they got a quirky, buoyant pop song that tricked listeners in the first 15 seconds after a somber intro explodes into an infectious UK garage beat. “I’m lovin, I’m livin, I’m pickin’ it up” Grande sings on the hook.
Enter Sweetener, an album that walks into the light and leaves the darkness behind, eschewing balladry for zippy and truly out there songs, unlike anything Grande has done before. The transition from “randrops,” a brief but arresting take on The Four Season’s “An Angel Cried” into “blazed,” featuring Pharrell Williams, might confuse listeners upon the first couple of listens, but she keeps it moving with the even stranger Nicki Minaj assisted “the light is coming.” Williams dominates the front half of the LP with the aforementioned songs, the album’s title track and “successful” (which many have already jokingly compared to the Wii shop music). These songs represent the “new places” Grande had expressed a desire to go while recording the album. Previous efforts like Dangerous Woman, My Everything and even her debut album Yours Truly all tailored to radio a bit with razor sharp hooks developed in a laboratory by pop music mainstay Max Martin. And though he does make a few appearances here, the songs sound worlds away from “Problem,” “Break Free” and “Into You.” Even “no tears left to cry,” the project’s closest thing to a traditional pop song, alienates upon first listen with its nontraditional structure and seemingly glib lyrics. Grande’s voice, however, holds it all together and takes it to another level that few singers could ever go. She looks sadness in the face, and with the swing of her signature ponytail heads for the dance floor.
The same can’t be said for the Pharrell collaborations, which feel largely undercooked. “blazed” is largely inoffensive and catchy while “the light is coming” makes more sense in the context of the album than it did when it dropped a few months ago, but is still too erratic and would have worked better as an interlude. “R.E.M.,” the superior Pharrell song, is a dreamy ode to a lover that moonlights as a siren song. Though originally intended for Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled album, it perfectly suits Grande and her pristine voice in a way the other songs don’t, allowing her to tap into her lower register. It’s these moments that manage to frustrate, especially when stacked against the heavenly highs of “God is a woman,” the album’s second single and one of Grande’s best songs ever. A slinky, midtempo pop song with elements of trap and and raggae peppered throughout that gives way to an explosive outro; Grande’s vocals layered against each other to sound like a euphoric hallelujah chorus. In the breathtaking music video, Grande fingers the earth and makes a rallying cry about the power of women. The achievement feels cheapened when it’s followed by “sweetener” and “successful.”
In spite of what doesn’t work, Sweetener manages to finish strong as one of the best, and emotionally resonant albums of the year. The back half of the album features some truly incredible moments: “everytime,” a foggy R&B song that sees Grande returning to a relationship despite its toxicity, “breathin,” the crowned jewel of the album where Grande details her bouts with anxiety and “goodnight n go,” which features a dreamy Imogen Heap sample. These moments rescue the album because not only do they push Grande into new territory, but they don’t make the fatal mistake of overshadowing her voice. On the contrary, Grande’s syrupy voice works in tandem with the production of Martin and regulars Ilya and Tommy Brown, like a pair of vines twisting as they travel up a column. On “better off,” the album’s closest thing to a ballad, Grande comes to the realization that despite the magnetic pull she has for her toxic lover, she’s stronger without them. She vows to complete her emotional journey to recovery on the penultimate track, “pete davidson” a brief interlude in which Ariana vows to be happy.
It’s a simple promise, but one whose power cannot be understated when grappling with mental illness. After having her world turned upside down by a senseless act of violence, Grande finds her way right side up by the end of Sweetener. “They say my system is overloaded/ I’m too much in my head did you notice? My body’s here on Earth, but I’m floating/ Disconnected, so sometimes I’m frozen and alone” Grande sings on closer “get well soon,” Her thoughts of senselessness layered against affirmations.”Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down,” she reassures. The song and Grande’s voice once again work together to evoke a beautiful aura that cloaks the listener in what can only be described as a warm hug. “This is for everybody,” before promising to be there for those listening. It all ends with a powerful 40 second silence, bringing the song’s length to 5:22 in memory of the attack at her concert. It’s a powerful choice that drives home the album’s powerful message to persevere in moments, when the thought of continuing feels impossible. With Sweetener, Ariana Grande has delivered a bright, reaffirming light in protest of a suffocating darkness.
On her last album, Grande’s offered the simple promise that “We’re gonna be alright.” On Sweetener, you see what she meant.