Republic Records · August 17, 2018
A lot can happen in three years. For aspiring diva chanteuse Ariana Grande, a lot did happen in the period between the release of her third studio album Dangerous Woman in 2015, and today, a few weeks after releasing her fourth full-length, Sweetener, to much anticipation. Because of the many turns that Grande’s life has taken in these past three years, one could ascribe a number of labels to this newest edition in her discography: a breakup album, an album about newfound love, a dedication to the victims of the 2017 Manchester bombing. Whichever label you choose to apply to Sweetener, one fact remains: this work is Ariana’s most personal to date.
There’s a sense that Sweetener is taking its time to show us all the facets of Grande’s emotions, both sweet and sour ones. The singer is bold and brash on the sensuous “God is a woman”, and teases an imaginary lover in the fun and flirty dreamscape of “R.E.M.”. The record is not without unhappier moments, such as in “everytime,” a trap-infused song ranting about an unhealthy relationship, and “better off,” a mellow, introspective track about relationship insecurities. However, one of Grande’s most honest songs on the record doesn’t exist in a breakup anthem, but in the powerful and expressive “breathin,” dedicated to the struggles of dealing with anxiety and panic attacks.
While reminiscent of her older work (“Into You” from Dangerous Woman came to my mind at first listen), “breathin” displays an understanding of anxiety in the mind, and the importance of trying to find oneself in the midst of chaos. In the lead up to the 2nd chorus of the track, Grande sings, “just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’” solo and with a sense of urgency, but pauses, as if to take a big breath before continuing onto the chorus. When she finally sings “I know I gotta keep, I keep on breathin’”, the music lands with a crash on top of her vocals, as if determined to continue on this journey with her.
Sweetener is personal not only in its themes, but in its production. Much of the record adopts a minimalist style, trading Ariana’s signature loud, powerful vocal riffs in favor of subdued harmonies and sweet, dulcet tones. This change is mainly thanks to Pharrell Williams, who co-wrote and produced a number of tracks with his signature funky touch, allowing a playful and carefree Grande to shine on tracks like “blazed” and “the light is coming.” It’s fun to hear Ariana on tracks that aren’t just about her powerful and tantalizing sex appeal, a-la “Dangerous Woman”; take “successful,” a bouncy, delightful track celebrating girl power and success.
However, some of Pharrell’s input doesn’t necessarily do Ariana any favors. “sweetener,” while on the whole is upbeat and joyful, unfortunately makes Ariana’s voice grate on the ear as she repeatedly raps the lyrics “get it”, “hit it”, “twist it” and “mix it” like she’s yelling out instructions on a Bop It! game. Likewise, the track “borderline” in the latter half of the record sounds nice enough, but brings in a Missy Elliot feature that doesn’t pack as much punch as it should. That being said, it goes to show that Ariana sounds her best when she’s expressing real emotion on this record. The interlude “pete davidson,” dedicated to Ariana’s fiancé, is extremely cheesy, yes, but swells into a surprisingly beautiful vocal riff and gentle instrumentation, leading us to think that maybe this relationship might actually last. Ariana does sing that she’s “happy” on it at least 20 times, after all.
After a roller coaster of events and emotions occurring in Ariana’s life these past three years, it’s a marvel that Sweetener manages to express these important turning points honestly and delicately. Ariana ends the album with “get well soon,” a track that encompasses what this whole record is seeking out: a meditation on dealing with emotion. Deliberately running five minutes and twenty-two seconds, a dedication to the victims of the Manchester bombings on May 22nd, 2017, the song is Ariana at her best – gorgeous, hopeful, and deeply personal.