Favorite Tracks: “blazed,” “R.E.M.,” “goodnight n go”
It seems strange to be reflecting on this album so long after its debut: the national tour has already been announced, the singles practically faded from the charts, and soon the ads will begin for award nominations. Her desultory engagement with SNL’s Pete Davidson, mixed with the tragic loss of prolific rapper, and Grande’s ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, a bubbly, banger-packed album oozing with a flowery love released just in time for summer now has notes of naivete and overzealous candor—the two months since the release of Ariana Grande’s fourth studio album, SWEETENER, have drastically reshaped the perception of the project. Still, her latest acts to further solidify Grande’s status as a bona fide pop diva who has found her voice in these formative times.
At least in comparison to her past work, SWEETENER does not force radio hits or exploit tacky guest spots for the sake of genre-fusing—she no longer needs to. Grande brings her recognizable soprano to the table and lays it over a clearly defined project with Pharrell Williams’ clangy production tropes strewn throughout. As a writer on 10 of the 15 tracks, Grande shepherds a team of trusted collaborators such as ILYA (“Problem”) and Max Martin (“Bang Bang”) through neo-soul, urban, and doo-wop influences whilst tackling her relationships, sexuality, and the mourning of victims of the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing.
That 1950s soda-pop influence is inherited on the opener “raindrops (an angel cried).” A brief acapella snippet of The Four Seasons’ “An Angel Cried” shows Grande flaunting her vocal prominence before the album even begins. By literally only singing “When raindrops fell, down from the sky. The day you left me, an angel cried / Oh, she cried, an angel cried. / She cried,” this melismatic take persuades the listener to venture forward with the album. Yet one listening in the months after its August release date could be stricken with a chill by the eerie context of this tune in the wake of Mac Miller’s passing. On an opener that oddly foreshadows his untimely passing, Grande’s vocals echo out as if being sung to a silent congregation at a funeral.
From there the album jumps into an exploration of urban instrumentation on the high-tempo, funk-inspired track “blazed,” where Williams provides vocals. While the title might indicate Grande is going to discuss partaking is certain substances when outside the studio, that’s not Grande’s brand (and nor should it be). It actually discusses finding a soulmate somewhere in this vast universe of ours—a soulmate that she will never let go—despite already having let go of that man. Pop stars have a proclivity for these kinds of love songs (i.e. Taylor Swift) and the case can be made that she merely produced a generic track. That said, the coincidence of her then-pending nuptials and the content of the album cannot be ignored. The same feelings stand true on album highlight “R.E.M.,” a lighthearted romp where Grande and background vocalists supplement her dreamscape first encounter with a lover, with arpeggios reminiscent of The Chordettes on the classic tune “Mr. Sandman.”
Part of what makes SWEETENER so pivotal for Grande’s artistry is her decision to reflect on her own successes and feeling with a mature, yet contemporary, approach. Whereas she previously rocked “Side to Side” in a bunny costume or pranced on stage with Zedd, she now settles into adulthood with a three-pack of thematic songs perfect for moving into music with a deeper meaning. The album’s cornerstone, “God is a woman,” is a voluptuous smash perfectly executed for an age of female empowerment and sexual liberation. Grande comes to us, not as the shy girl afraid to talk to the boy she likes, but a strong and accomplished woman who demands, if not commands, respect. The title track as well does a fine job of evolving quick romances into meaningful relationships, with a sultry analogy equating the motions of “Bop It!” to oral sex. This all before flexing her accolades to a surprised, likely male, companion on “successful.” Grande is able to unite her sexual and industrial dominance with full self-awareness of the progressive female audience she intends to inspire. It is all fitting for a cultural stewardess who has grown up in the public eye with plans to keep her base lifted.
From here, we are treated to radio hit “no tears left to cry” and a guest verse from Missy Elliott on the trappy banger “borderline.” I would be remiss to not bring attention to “pete davidson,” the 1:14 dedication to Grande’s former fiancee Pete Davidson. The song now reads like an ode to rushed romance in the way it exudes the kind of picturesque love affair we expect out of Hollywood celebrities. Yes, it still is guaranteed to put a smile on your face given the mushy imagining of an ideal love, but it is her near-exclusive use of the word “happy” in the last 20 seconds of the song that makes you shake your head and say, “Oh, Ariana.”
By coming to the aid of her fans after the Manchester Bombing in 2017, Grande moved a grieving country with a gracefulness not normally seen by pop queens. Such a situation has forced her to prevail over fears and anxieties that make for the perfect bookend to the album. “get well soon” is a touching, yet not cliched, tribute to her fallen fans that admits her own PTSD and an undying loyalty to the millions that make her such an icon. Aside from a few moments of impulsive lyricism that end up sounding ostensibly silly in retrospect, SWEETENER is a fulfilling pop album that propels Ariana Grande to a new artistic level.