Sweetener is something of a watershed moment for Ariana Grande. It’s her first full-length release since the harrowing terrorist attack after her ‘Dangerous Woman’ concert at Manchester Arena last year. Inevitably, this places her under a level of scrutiny unusual even for a pop megastar. Processing heartache and suffering is traditional fare for a pop album, but tackling traumas which had wider reverberations than solely herself is something that Ariana Grande is alone in tackling. But that’s not to say Sweetener will or even should be defined solely by that event – because Ariana Grande is also a famously talented star, and her last album Dangerous Woman in particular was a real breakout moment for her. With all that weighing on her shoulders, how has Sweetener turned out?
Quite notably, for this record Ariana collaborated with Pharrell Williams on quite a number of the album’s tracks and has pursued a more adventurous foray into R&B. ‘Successful’ offers an outro lined with a dreamy steel-drum backing, ‘Blazed (feat. Pharrell)’ tantalises with a tropical, summery air, and album closer ‘Get Well Soon’ eschews typical verse-chorus structures in an important ode to self-care. The latter also notably closes with 40 seconds of silence, in dedication to the 22 victims of the Manchester bombing. However, as much as Pharrell indeed offers something that is sonically refreshing in his sparse production work, the songs he’s produced and co-written are frequently repetitive, derivative and somewhat dissatisfying. ‘The Light is Coming’, a collaboration with Nicki Minaj, offers a driving, intriguing first half to the song that is then essentially just repeated without great deviation. Similarly, ‘R.E.M.’ – built off a rejected Beyoncé song from Lemonade – has a certain laidback charm, but suffers from a repetitive structure.
Outside of the Pharrell-produced tracks, Sweetener actually proves fairly strong. The album’s first two singles ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God is a Woman’ sound as daring and punchy now as they did on first listen, blending pop with disco, garage and trap to magnificent effect. ‘Breathin’, purported to be the next single off the album stands out as the best non-single on the record, driven by real passion and dramatic, intoxicating production. This isn’t to say that Sweetener succeeds solely in its moments of melisma. ‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight ‘n’ Go’, for example, stand out as more low-key moments on the record. However, despite this formulaic similarity to the Pharrell tracks, these two songs enact similar elements with greater purpose and depth. ‘Goodnight ‘n’ Go’ in particular offers a touching vulnerability and intimacy.
Throughout Sweetener, it feels like Ariana touches very delicately on the trauma that has followed her from the events of the last year. In paying ode to the recuperative effects of being with a lover, she frequently alludes to her experiences but only with intermittent moments of real insight. But perhaps Ariana didn’t intend to make Sweetener a confessional, soul-baring record – and that would be a great deal to ask of her. Instead, in the aftermath of great darkness, she seeks to find the light for herself and for her fans. Sweetener certainly isn’t Ariana’s strongest work, but it still packs a pretty satisfying punch.