Review: Sweetener by Ariana Grande

Ariana Grande finds produces some intermittent bangers while caught in the changing tides of contemporary pop

Ariana performing in New Hampshire, source: Wikimedia Commons

Favourite Tracks: God is a Woman, Get Well Soon, No Tears Left to Cry, Blazed

Rating: 6/10

In an interview with The FADER magazine prior to the release of Sweetener, Grande’s fourth album, the singer hinted that listeners should expect something different: “I’ve always just been like a shiny, singing, 5-6-7- 8, sexy-dance…sexy thing. But now it’s like, OK… issa bop – but issa message.” The release of Sweetener comes at a somewhat precarious moment for pop music. For a genre synonymous with commercial appeal, it seems increasingly challenging for pop artists to rely on the established formulas which once guaranteed success.

Grande says that her music is now both “bop” and “message”, but she is by no means the first to try and combine the two in recent times. Rihanna’s ANTI and Beyoncé’s Lemonade are both albums which were critically acclaimed for their perceived ‘authenticity’. ANTI was lauded as a more personal, less overtly ‘commercial’ album than Rihanna’s previous work, whilst Lemonade was both political and intimate in its celebration of female strength and resilience. Sweetener can thus be seen as part of this broader sea-change occurring in contemporary pop, in which “message” is just as important as commercial appeal.

Set against this backdrop, whilst Grande’s album is undeniably her strongest work to date, it also falls oddly flat in multiple places. There is a sense that this album is an attempt to broach new musical territory for Grande, and yet the overall result feels more cautious than innovative. A case in point is the album’s third track ‘The Light is Coming’, one of seven to be produced by Pharrell Williams, which features an oddly chant-like refrain as well as a fairly underwhelming verse from frequent collaborator Nicki Minaj.

The song contains a repeated sample of a man shouting, “You wouldn’t let anybody speak for this and instead!” at a town hall meeting concerning healthcare in 2009. As well as becoming increasingly irritating as the song progresses, the reason for its inclusion is difficult to understand; is this an attempt to lend a political edge to a track which is ostensibly about a difficult relationship? If so, the move feels poorly executed, as well as unimaginative given that Pharrell has previously used the sample in the N.E.R.D and Rihanna collaboration ‘Lemon’ as well as ‘Master Race’ by Busta Rhymes.

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Another misstep is the forgettable ‘Borderline’ which contains a criminally short guest verse from the imperious Missy Elliott and a background of uninspiring synths and plodding beats. Ironically, Grande sings ‘won’t you give me a bit of your time’, and then allows Elliott only seventeen seconds of airtime, wasting the rapper’s considerable talent.

The album flits between different styles from track to track, from the 70s-influenced groove of ‘Successful’, the trap beats of ‘Everytime’ and ‘Sweetener’, to the R&B of Beyonce-rejected-demo ‘’R.E.M’. By the end of the album Grande has covered an impressive amount of musical ground. The mixture of trap, R&B and pop is admirably ambitious in scope and if occasionally it feels a tad scatter-gun, it is evidence of Grande’s recent musical development as an artist, her willingness to try out new sounds and ideas even if they don’t always come off.

The album’s strongest moments arrive when this readiness to throw caution to the wind is accompanied by the pop hooks and vocal power which have always been the foundations of Grande’s sound. This winning formula is executed most successfully on the album’s most obvious stand-out hit ‘God is a Woman’, which has already become ubiquitous in department stores across the country. The fusion of sexual and religious imagery is not without precedent (Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer’ anyone?), but the gratifying intricacy of lyrics like “And I can tell that you know I know how I want it” prevents the track from sliding into cliché. The sleek mid-tempo production combines pop and hip-hop to create the perfect space for Grande’s sultry vocals, which scale an impressive range effortlessly, rendering the song as the most polished example of the new sound you feel she’s trying to create. The assertiveness and conceptual inventiveness of ‘God is a Woman’ is something you feel the album could do with more of in its weaker areas, yet that is not to say there aren’t other highlights.

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The first single, ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ is a peppy dance-pop track which offers an anthemic solution to tragedy: ‘I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up’. This and ‘Get Well Soon’ are songs which reach out to the listener and offer a strength and resilience which appear hard-won; the latter song, in particular, seems intended as a tonic to all those who suffer from anxiety and mental health problems. The way in which Grande offers her support (‘I’m with you, I’m with you, I’m with you, just call me’) to her fans is incredibly moving given the context of the Manchester terror attack last year, as is the forty seconds of silence which brings the song’s run-time to 5.22 (the date of the attack).

These moments of warmth and musical fineness have the effect of casting a harsh light on the album’s weaker tracks, exposing where they are lacking in comparison. And yet despite the unevenness, this work constitutes a significant creative progression for Grande – neither “bop” nor “message”, Sweetener is something stranger, occupying a middle-ground between the two. This is not an album which innovates contemporary pop music, but perhaps understandably, Ariana Grande is not too concerned with that right now. Instead, she has made an album which feels like a successful act of healing.

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