Fixated with Ariana’s Grande’s love life this year? She knows. She indulges the gossip – her split with Mac Miller and her very public (and strangely endearing) whirlwind engagement to Pete Davidson – on Sweetener, her fourth studio album, putting her diva-power pipes to some sad and some sugar-coated tracks about men, romance, heartache, and sex. But the real guiding event behind the album is Manchester and her recovery and search for normalcy after that attack.
With Grande writing so much of the album, her strange but delightful sense of humour comes through much more prominently than in her past work. Part of that also comes from working with Pharrell, who produces the vast majority of the tracks and enjoys a kooky musical turn as well as an unexpected turn of phrase. The two perform together on “blazed,” where they sandwich the divine search for a soulmate between a lyric about getting high (“Don't think that it cannot happen, 'cause it can / Shawty, you can get blazed / Sleep if you want, and wake up in love again"). He compliments Grande’s unpredictable creative impulses, and “successful,” with its Us3 “Cataloop” sounding groove, is a particular standout in a sea of off-kilter songs, as are “R.E.M.” and the album’s title track. Together, Pharrell and Grande make a pop sound unlike anything else happening right now. It’s a mixture of signature N.E.R.D. beats filtered through the negative space so popular in SoundCloud rap, with Grande’s distinct, feminine signature embossed on top. It’s a giant step away from the standard Max Martin template, and nothing like the Jack Antonoff production scheme that has come to define the sound of women in pop.
Following the suicide bombing at one of her concerts in Manchester in 2017, the singer has had a lot to overcome: anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. But Grande seems to have taken to heart the idea that living one's best life is a way to combat that darkness. She celebrates those ideas all over Sweetener, but they come through strongly in “breathin,” “the light is coming,” and especially in “God is a woman,” the only song with a capital letter in the title. “God,” along with “successful,” is an epic dismissal of the religious dogma that subjugates women and the art they create. Grande has always identified as a feminist, but after what she has been through and the place American women currently find themselves in, it’s radical to hear a young, female artist talk about how she’s excelling and why she’s influential.
The album does have its lighter moments, most of which are focused on relationships. The lightest of the light is, hands down, the brief track written for her fiancé, “pete davidson.” There’s a universality in the Imogene Heap-sampling “goodnight n go” as well as “everytime.” In the end, Grande is an optimist on “get well soon,” a love letter to the fans who are struggling to get through the day. There is less vibrato, less of that signature high-pitched melisma and more from Grande’s lower ranges. It feels like with every “yup” and “woop” we’re hearing Grande’s id in a way we never have before.
Via humour, true ferocity, charismatic wackiness, and not much sentimentality, Sweetener paints a completely unexpected and honest (if at times abstract) picture of Grande right now – a year after tragedy and in the throes of romantic bliss. She seems to have unlocked a new level of creativity, one that goes beyond a good single here and there.