Ariana Grande’s fourth studio album Sweetener is nothing if not aptly named -- the 47-minute album, rife with expert lyrics and the songstress’ signature vocal runs, sounds just like buttercream frosting tastes. Gently filling, made with love and devastatingly sweet -- Sweetener delivers what feels like Grande’s first real album, a heartfelt love ballad to her boo and her audience at large that throws convention out the window and allows Grande a clean palette on which to demonstrate her vocal chops and sensitive Cancerian energies.
Although this album is undoubtedly Ariana’s (it’s hard to imagine anyone other than the yellow hoodie-wearing, lollipop-licking, high pony-flaunting diva singing the lyrics “You know I’m the wifey type, babe/You know I be one of a kind, oh whoa/Once you tastin’ my ice cream, I bet you won’t ever leave”), there are obvious moments where producer Pharrell Williams’ voice emerges and, consequently, the sounds of N.E.R.D.. These influences are most obvious in the Nicki Minaj feature track “light is coming” and, obviously, “blazed.” The former was rather an acquired taste for listeners who prefer more sonically cohesive instrumentals -- although not entirely cohesive with the rest of the album, it works as a B-Side single or an offshoot of No One Ever Really Dies.
The title track “sweetener,” although as beautiful and saccharine as its name would suggest, felt somewhat lacking in background instrumentals -- the hook and the beat both were fairly simplistic and distracted from the effervescently lovestruck lyrics. A song that deserved better mixing, it still pulls through as a standout track through its honestly and compelling storytelling that mimics the desires of the character in “R.E.M.,” another track that inspired me to tap the repeat button.
“R.E.M.” recounts the tale of a woman discussing the man from her dreams and how badly she wishes she didn’t have to wake up, a familiar narrative that feels personal to the lovesick listener. Additional standout “everytime” reveals the other side of the coin, telling the story of a back-and-forth romance, one where the protagonist knows this love is bad for her but pursues it anyway. Both songs demonstrate a firm grasp of the love song/anti-love song and make a case for Grande’s capacity as a queen of pop.
Some unexpected but not unpleasant sounds from the album included the EDM-esque “goodnight n go,” Y2K pop princess bop “borderline,” and late 90s pop ballad “get well soon.” “Goodnight n go” sounded an awful lot like the summer of 2016, when Bebe Rexha reigned supreme on the Billboard charts and “In the Name of Love” played at every backyard art house party. This is, however, by no means a complaint -- the sound isn’t used as a gimmick, but rather as a genuine accentuation of passionate, energetic lyrics.
“Borderline,” feature Missy Elliott, feels like it would’ve been the ultimate banger at a West Hollywood club in 2003, which is perhaps where most of its appeal is derived -- we’re all thirsty for those early 2000s sounds, and Ariana delivers. “Get well soon” similarly feels like a throwback track, something a younger Mariah probably would have jumped at the opportunity to make her own. Slowly swinging and rhythmic, “get well soon” employs a call-and-response style to convey messages of self care and self love, gently assuaging the anxious listener’s fears that they aren’t good enough. Ariana tells you to take care of your body and you listen.
Perhaps the most talked-about track, “pete davidson,” was a -- dare I say it -- sweet spot of the album. Not even clocking in at a minute and a half, the track feels like an opportunity for Grande to excitedly gush over her boo (it’s essentially just her repeating “Happy” over and over again on top of a bubblegum-y slow jam), and I’m not mad about it. If anything, it makes me wish nothing more than to be the recipient of her affections, BDE aside.
Final standouts were the first single “no tears left to cry” and “breathin,” both of which sounded most like the Ariana we know and love, but escalated to a heightened level of pop music, ignoring the radio’s call for twangy mumblecore beats and soaring folk rock-EDM hybrids and providing us with the equally danceable but simultaneously original content we deserve. They defy convention while still sounding like an Ariana Grande song, which is perhaps one of the greatest achievements of the entire album.
Honest, emotional and gently soul-bearing, “sweetener” could only possibly have been performed by a Cancer -- and how lucky we are that that Cancer was Ariana Grande. Her angel voice takes you on a sweet and indulgent journey through new love and butterflies-in-your-stomach romance and, in the end, leaves you with nary a cavity to be found. This is an album that takes care of you, lets you cry on its shoulder and be a little too in your feelings and tells you, in the final track, that you’re valid because of it. And because of that, if nothing else, it’s worth your listen.