Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

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Ariana Grande Sweetener

Ariana Grande, an artist that continues to develop and evolve, releases her most diverse and experimental pop album to date. Full of positive anthems that mostly hit the sweet spot.

★★★★

Grande is no stranger to switching her style, Each record has seen her sound grow alongside her, from early beginnings and teeny-bopper pop on ‘Yours Truly’ to the R&B influenced teen years on the impressive ‘My Everything’ before finally, the sultry confidence of a female fully in control on third album ‘Dangerous Woman’. However, as she began to create her fourth record late last year the question that lingered was, How would Grande sound and recover after the horrific events of last May? an evening in which 22 people were killed in a bombing at her Manchester Concert.

‘Sweetener’ gives that answer with its very title. Grande has created an album which brings “light to the darkness”, embracing her fans with joy-filled experimental R&B songs placed alongside reflective power ballads that provide genuinely touching moments. Despite one very solid message and theme, the album is definitely one of two halves. This is down to its mixed collection of producers, a mix of old and new styles with the experienced Pharrell taking charge on seven tracks and the new millennial hitmaker Max Martin helming the majority of the others. This, unfortunately, leads to a range in quality, with both producers having their highs and lows, however, Ariana’s remarkable vocal techniques and delivery give ‘Sweetener’ a welcome consistency.

Sweetener starts with ‘Raindrop’ which is a very brief cover of ‘An Angel Cried’ by The Four Seasons. After waking up one morning and finding herself singing the refrain constantly, Grande decided to record it. The result is a beautiful acapella snippet that truly showcases Grande’s vocal potential. 

Those beautiful vocals, however, are, unfortunately, swiftly hidden by Pharrell’s over encumbering production on the bland ‘blazed’ and the erratic ‘the light Is coming’. the latter which pales in comparison to the stellar ‘Bed’, the other Nicki/Ariana collaboration released this month which would have been much more suited to Grande’s album than Minaj's.

Pharrell Williams is an acclaimed producer for a reason though, he and Ariana really strike gold on a string of mid-album tracks. ‘R.E.M’ has been long championed by Grande as her favourite track from the record and it’s easy to see why. Its progressive tempo, experimental production and literal dreamlike melody create a wonderful track which unlike most modern pop songs can actually call itself unique, It even subtly breaks down the fourth wall when Grande mutters a clever little “does this end?” towards the track's conclusion.

‘Sweetener’ the title track is delightful with its Bop-it breakdown and fluttering vocals, the interpolation of different message tones is a neat little trick, much less appreciated though is the frequent grunts and exclamations of ‘Sheez’ by Williams who can’t help but make his presence irritatingly known.

’Successful’ is 2018’s feminist anthem, a celebration of bodacious accomplishments designed to empower her female fans. Featuring some enjoyable call-and-responses and uplifting lyrics such as “And, girl, you too, you are so young, And beautiful and so successful”. It’s also Williams most interesting and understated piece of production on the record.

Max Martin also has his stellar moments, as seen from the fantastic two pre-release singles, the triumphant ‘No Tears Left To Cry’, a mixture of reflection and overcoming trauma which is one of the best pop songs of the past decade, period. As well as the glorious, gospel-inspired ‘god is a woman’ with it’s epic Grande filled crescendo which sees the singer creating a choir of Ariana’s from hundreds of vocal layers, it’s a spine-tingling effect that works well due to Grande’s incredible vocal range.

Disappointingly, There are a few sour tastes leftover from listening through the album. No matter how many times I play the record I can’t resist the temptation to skip through the utterly drab ‘borderline’ which for the first time in her career actually see’s Grande voice sound monotone and don’t get me started on Missy Elliot and her robotic verse, which for the first time see’s the iconic female rappers personality and ferociousness seemingly sucked dry. the definition of phoned in. 

’better off’ may have a lot of emotional significance to Grande, and yes its message of how it can be hard to push aside a toxic relationship is important, but the reliance on throwing layers and layers of plodding percussion and a thin film of autotune over her vocals just lead to a disappointing and worse, forgettable track.

It’s not for me to comment on Grande’s personal relationships but the cringe-inducing ‘pete davidson’ interlude offers little in terms of substantial musical content or actual sentiment. the lyrics are ‘cutesy’ yet it’s hard to see them as anything more than just seemingly vague and generic romantic comedy script lines thrown around on top of a formulaic trap beat. There’s a decent song buried there but the brief single minute capacity doesn’t give enough time to discover it.

I’ve left the strongest tracks to last, they also happen to be the most surprising on the record. When you hear there’s going to be a literal song about an anxiety attack titled ‘breathin’, you’d be understandably concerned. However, it ends up being the single best track of the album and just possibly Grande’s best pop track to date. This is down to the way the track is constantly in motion, highlighting various elements. Initially beginning with a gradually rising tempo and stripped back chorus. Before suddenly, the track erupts into layers of insanely catchy percussion, all driven by Grande's emotion-filled and powerful vocals. You’re left feeling that as the track goes on she’s starting to overcome her anxiety, gaining more and more confidence, all whilst lifting the listener up alongside her. it’s certainly a momentous track, which I simply can’t praise enough.

The other twist is Grande’s revitalisation of Imogen Heap’s now slightly retitled ‘goodnight n go’. Grande unsurprisingly manages to match Heap note for note on the high sections, which is certainly no mean feat. For the most part, the track is a faithful recreation through and through, aside from the outro. In which, Grande opts to completely strip the song back. Leaving just her vocals, which are almost angelic as they bounce through the octaves before definitively settling on one ear-pleasing, seemingly impossible to hit yet beautiful note.

The album itself ends on a much more sombre note, the touching ‘get well soon’ is a perfect encapsulation of the record. It’s a final acknowledgement of the healing process Grande and her fans have gone through during the past fifteen months. Grande herself declaring she just wanted to hug her fans musically. The ballad never really makes much of an impression, it’s a solid song but neither disappoints or impresses too much. It will certainly pull at your heartstrings, however, especially when you notice the intentional 40 second moment of silence which brings the runtime to 5:22.

‘Sweetener’ doesn’t allow itself to be bogged down by the trauma of that evening, instead the album is a fitting tribute, it shows you need to remember what you’ve lost but smile, add a bit of sweetness to your life and defeat terror, by doing what they don’t want you to do, carry on.