Sweetener: A Retrospective Review
By Lexi Vollero
Two months ago, Ariana Grande’s fourth studio album Sweetener exploded on the charts and made its way into fans' hearts. Following the largest opening week numbers of her career, the addition of a giant glistening gem on her ring finger and the discovery of her true voice, it seemed as if the world was entering into the “Golden Age of Ari.” Little did we know that within 60 days, much like the upside-down aesthetic of her album, the dewy, pristine goddess on the cover would find her life turned on its head. Ironic, isn’t it?
As if the bombing in Manchester in May 2017 wasn’t enough trauma for a lifetime, the singer has since been faced with the sudden death of rapper and long-time boyfriend Mac Miller by drug overdose. Just as suddenly after, she broke off her engagement to comedian Pete Davidson, tallying two losses within her inner circle and putting a temporary damper on celebrating her successes. The dreamy production and overall message of the album musically captures a moment in which Grande was basking in the light of new romance, self-love, success and hope for her future. But how does listening through this album change now that this moment has ended?
Although context of the music has changed, in many ways, the album remains just as sweet and tantalizing as before. More than just an ode to her then-fiance, Sweetener is the first time we have seen Grande use her platform to open up in an honest, vulnerable way and truly lean into her voice, both literally and figuratively as a power in the music-making process. If anything, Grande’s separation from Davidson enhances the quality of the album drastically. Since she dropped her first studio project in 2013, most of her music has focused on love and sex; her artistic image thus revolved around these themes and the media attention she garnered always seemed at least somewhat rooted in her sex appeal. But in Sweetener, she makes it clear that she is more than that, as she tackles topics like independence, anxiety, feminism and persevering through hardship. By emancipating the album from Grande’s engagement, it pulls the love songs like “pete davidson” and “R.E.M” from the spotlight, allowing for a more meaningful message to shine through: she is defined neither by men nor adversity.
In a video with Vogue, Grande describes her sound as “a nineties baby catapulted into this cloud of polished popdust and then six million different personalities sing a bunch of harmonies together.” Although there is no way of truly knowing or visualizing what this means, the fact that nine of the 15 songs on Sweetener have charted on the Billboard Hot 100 show that it’s clearly working for her. Grande has always admitted that fellow pop princesses like Mariah Carey and Madonna are just as influential to her music as R&B artists like Whitney Houston and India.Arie, but this album is the first to overtly showcase this. Additionally, each track reflects bits and pieces of Grande’s personality, from the quirky stream-of-conscious talk-singing on “R.E.M,” complete with a sample of Grande asking “does this end?” (3:27), to an authentic giggle after a set of impressive high riffs on “everytime” (2:32) that the artist shared in an Instagram post. For full disclosure, I am a huge fan Ariana Grande. My affinity for her began when I realized we were both short, brunette, olive-skinned and Italian–she was the first famous figure I found that resembled me in any capacity and that gave me the confidence to stand out in the sea of Southern California blondes I grew up surrounded by. Because I’ve followed her career since her “Honeymoon Avenue” days, I was extremely eager to hear her personality finally come through in her new sound on Sweetener.
Although it is easy to fall in love with the the glimmering, floaty synths and triumphant riffs of “no tears left to cry” or the divine feminine power of “God is a woman,” supported by a forceful, pulsing production, let’s not forget other hidden gems on the album. Straight up, “breathin” has not left my head since the moment I first heard it. From the moment the muffled instrumental flourished into the opening, understated lyrical line, I knew I was in for a banger. In classic pop form, as the song progresses, it gains more momentum and complex layers until peaks in the final chorus, in which a resounding choir of Grande’s voice encourages her listeners to push forward and keep breathing (great advice, especially for those of us who often feel so overwhelmed we forget to breathe). But more important than the musicality of the track is the act of Grande opening up and putting listeners in her mind during an anxious moment–something we experience far too often as a society. After Manchester, and especially after the trauma she has faced since dropping Sweetener, this message rings truer, and more impactful, than ever.
Another underrated track on the album is “goodnight n go.” With a music-box-style twinkling, tinkering opening and verse vocals that sit comfortably in her vocal mix, the soft style of the song is easily lost in the shuffle. However, as these talk-sing-style vocals progress into floating, high breathy crooning, she captures an innocent, child-like sweetness fitting for the the song in which she professes an equally-touching confession of feelings to a “cute” mystery man. To me, this soft bop showcases her full musical capabilities beyond belting and captures a clean, controlled simplicity that is rare in recent pop music. Some might say Grande achieves this sound by echoing another one of her musical inspirations: Imogen Heap.
The fatal flaw I have consistently found with Sweetener is repetition. Compared to 2016’s Dangerous Woman, the track-by-track volume of diverse, punchy leads and beats that distinguish individual songs is lacking. Because the overall vibe of the album is more mellow, low-key and lower in Grande’s four-octave range, it is easier for the album as a whole to blur in places. Additionally, individual songs are too often constrained within traditional pop song structure: verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, final chorus with Grande belting over it and layers building throughout the course of the song. While this is considered commonplace in the world of pop music, it made certain songs feel endless, despite being under four minutes long. For example, “R.E.M” was a nice departure from other tracks of the album due to it’s uniquely-generated production of breaths and bells with an adorable rap on top. However, within the track itself, there is little variation in the instrumentation or message, so it all ends up meshing together and creating a dragging feeling.
All-in-all, Sweetener is not a genre-altering, innovative musical masterpiece that completely changes the game, but it is certainly a call for other artists to up theirs. Even though the musical moment in which Grande co-wrote the album has come and gone, it does not change the fact that this album is a turning point in her career. Not only is it a departure from her previous musical styles, but it has presented Grande in a deeper, more humanized way that has simultaneously brought her down to our level and elevated her to goddess-like status, fully-establishing her regal status in the pop industry. Despite experiencing her own anxiety-and-loss-ridden form of hell over the past two months, it seems Grande is practicing what she preaches on Sweetener by taking it all in stride, saying “thank u, next” to the past and confidently striding straight into the future, ponytail bobbing and knee-high heeled boots clicking behind her.