Virtuosic R&B-pop princess Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, Sweetener, might not be her best work yet – but it’s certainly her riskiest and most groundbreaking. With production shared between the omnipresent Pharrell Williams and old friends Max Martin and Tommy Brown, who we haven’t seen since her soulful debut, it’s the work of the former that truly distinguishes it from the rest of her work. Williams’ glitchy, experimental hip-hop beats weren’t something I could have ever foreseen working with Grande’s dynamic and powerful instrument as well as they do at times here, and while there certainly is the odd time the experimentation falls flat, Sweetener stands as Grande’s most sonically cohesive album. Along with the unashamedly joyful declarations of love in the lyrics that you can’t help but smile at, it’s an exciting step forward in her career.
While I’ve still been holding out hope for Grande to go full Whitney Houston on us and deliver some R&B power ballads, I’ll take her diverting from pop formulas and adapting more to the current hip-hop influenced state of R&B as well. The first track that truly blew me away on the project is it’s 4th song, “R.E.M”, reportedly a repurposed Beyonce demo, and Grande really does step into her role as a kind of Beyonce figure here. “You’re such a dream to me”, she sings, lowering her register and singing with what might be the calmest voice we’ve ever heard her use, getting lost in the dreamscape. She absolutely commands the instrumental, stopping it and pushing it into different sections with spoken asides and the occasional “shh”. There’s an incredible moment where Grande turns into a full a cappella group for a second, layering some notes in the middle of a verse out of nowhere. This immediately contrasts with the power of next track, “God is a woman”, which still stands out as the album’s best. The song perfectly blends Grande’s vocal power with immediately career-defining lyrical themes and the modern, upbeat sound she aims for. Her quick, confident delivery in the verses slowly builds up to some of the most impressive vocal moments of her career in its final minute, unexpectedly layering her vocals into a full choir to repeatedly proclaim the title as she riffs into the stratosphere in the forefront.
Pharrell’s production is frequently the most interesting thing about Sweetener, pushing Grande into some unfamiliar territory where she excels all the same. Williams himself appears on “blazed”, which features a rapid-fire slap bass and quickly darting jazzy synths. For the first time, we’re not focusing completely on Grande’s voice, and she quickly proves that she can shine above a more chaotic instrumental as well, jumping out in the mix with some sudden impressive and layered harmonies and a lower-key delivery that contrasts the unique instrumental well. He and Grande both bring their more fun-loving sides to title track, “sweetener”, where Williams provides some booming percussion and synth melody reminiscent of her earlier, more cutesy work that lays the framework for a repetitive hook immediately made for dancing and a joyous, celebratory hook – it’s pure happiness in a song. Williams continues to introduce sounds I never expected on a Grande project on “successful”, built on some kind of low-pitched brass instrument, old-school hip-hop shuffling beat and a steel drum, of all things. The beat switches infuse the track with energy, and Grande sounds perfectly at home anyway as she celebrates her successes with a wink on the hook. That repeated “issa surprise” hasn’t left my head since.
It’s far from being all about Pharrell, though – “breathin” looks like a likely single candidate and is easily her most impressive purely pop track since “Into You”. Another intoxicating slow build, the first prechorus is electric as she makes some impressive vocal jumps and we wait for the track to explode. The beat drops heavy, the track cutting out at just the right moments, and we even get a roaring guitar solo overtop of it all. The combination of the two hooks at the end completely sells it. “better off” places Grande’s vocals front and centre in the mix, and it’s the closest she’s come to sounding like Yours Truly. An emotional ballad, this time Grande isn’t mourning a lost love, but standing up for herself and exiting a toxic situation. It fits in with the overall maturation displayed across the whole project. Oh yeah, and “no tears left to cry”? Still an amazing opening single.
Of course, anyone going into a Grande album not looking primarily for her famously impressive vocals is looking in the wrong place, and there are a few times on this project where it does disappoint slightly as a specifically Grande track due to the more experimental work on the project. Single “the light is coming” never got the best reception, and while the infectious energy of the track has grown on me, the repetitive, spoken hook seems pointless for someone with so much vocal power, while Pharrell’s work on the track mirrors some of his recent N.E.R.D. work. The track “borderline”, as well, feels out of place removed from the other Pharrell cuts in the tracklisting, featuring a 20-second uninspired verse from Missy Elliott and really the only lack of an immediately catchy hook here.
By the time we close with “get well soon”, an instrumentally minimal track where Grande regathers herself mentally in the wake of the Manchester tragedy that occurred at her concert that ends with a moment of silence, it’s clear that Grande has taken time to move forward in a space that makes her happiest. The emphatic declarations of love and personal gain feel genuine, and her forays back into the genre that inspired her from the beginning are a natural step forward. Grande is still one of the most consistently impressive megastars.
Favourite Tracks: God is a woman, breathin, R.E.M, better off, sweetener
Least Favourite Track: borderline