To say that a lot has happened in Ariana Grande’s life since the release of her last album, Dangerous Woman (2016), is a bit of an understatement. There was the bombing at one of her concerts in Manchester, England, in May 2017. There was her breakup with rapper Mac Miller. And, if you have been on the Internet at all lately, you know that now she is suddenly engaged to SNL actor Pete Davidson.
Sweetener (2018), Grande’s latest album, deals, as expected, with these moments of the 25-year-old pop singer’s life. However, it is not the predictable, dark and serious, pop-single-infested album it could have been. Sweetener is honest, light, and sweet (pardon the pun!), and it reflects Grande’s maturity as an artist, having reinvented herself to deliver a work unlike any of her others.
The album opens up with “raindrops (an angel cried),” a 30-second acappella track which serves as a prologue. It’s a strange little song—devoid of any electronic background music that is usually expected from a pop album opener—but it serves its purpose by foreshadowing what is to come and putting Grande’s impressive vocals on the spotlight. It highlights one of the biggest departures from Grande’s previous style: many of the songs seem stronger in the context of the album than on their own. Gone are the days when Grande delivered albums packed with four to five singles. You won’t find many pop, radio-and-dance-floor hits like “Into You” and “Problem” on Sweetener, and that’s not a bad thing.
With Sweetener, Grande doesn’t seem to be interested in releasing a handful of pop songs that will be stuck on everyone’s head till the end of the year. Instead, she creates a cohesive, non-linear journey of love, loss, and light. “The light is coming,” featuring Nicki Minaj, struggles to become a favorite with a constant repetition of the same lyrics and blasé audio, but it still manages to find its place in providing the album with its core mantra (“The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole”).
There is a lot of optimism in Sweetener, and Grande almost always seems to be having a good time. “Pete davidson”, a ballad dedicated to her fiancé, and “successful”, a gleeful track about succeeding in the music industry, serve as two of the many joyful moments of the album, as she chants the lyrics with a carefree attitude. Although the album sometimes delves into more somber narratives, Grande still attempts to find the brighter side of things: while the song “everytime” has her falling back over and over to a toxic relationship, “better off” has her accepting that it should end and that she’s better off without it.
Even in the midst of all the light, Grande never fails to ground herself on the central message of the album: healing. “Get well soon”, the album’s closing track and a tribute to the Manchester victims, speaks of not only of pain and loss, but also of comfort (“I don’t care who is gone, you shouldn’t be alone / I’ll be there”). With a poignant, 40-second silence, Sweetener concludes its narrative of hurt and, most importantly, healing.
While Sweetener is certainly a much more album-oriented than single-oriented, there are two songs that seem to break free from the mold and are able to succeed with or without the context of the album as a whole. “God is a woman”, released a month before the album, is filled with powerful lyrics about sexuality and spirituality, tasteful mixes of pop and hip hop, and the best of Grande’s remarkable vocal range. It’s easily one of the best songs released this summer, simply because it’s so ridiculously easy to fall in love with it (if you haven’t sung along with the background choir in the end at least once, you’re lying).
At the other end of the spectrum there’s “breathin”, a song that is less of an anthem but still surprisingly catchy as Grande sings about dealing with anxiety. With her extensive vocals and more personal lyrics, Grande makes “breathin” not only a track that stands out from the rest of Sweetener’s calm and happier songs, but also one that can easily be placed on repeat over and over again.
It is unlikely that Grande is permanently giving up on her high ponytail and easy-to-dance-to songs, but Sweetener reveals everything that she could be as a more album-oriented artist. Few artists are able to make such unique, joyful works while searching for light, but Grande does it as easily pulling off her impossible falsettos.
Voice’s Choices: “God is a woman”, “get well soon”