Ariana Grande is determined to be a light on her fourth album. And no one has needed that light more than Grande herself. The last year has marked a tumultuous, even transformative, period for the 25-year-old pop superstar. In May, 2017, her concert in Manchester, England was the site of a terrorist bombing in which 23 people were killed. As she recovered from the post-attack trauma, Grande experienced the dissolution of a toxic relationship with rapper Mac Miller.
Sweetener is not the sad, serious ballad-heavy album many probably expected Grande to make, but it sure is the one she needed to. It’s a refreshing, cohesive package, following three albums of sometimes messy but always fun attempts at placing her own personality in the pop landscape. She’s let her ponytail down, metaphorically and literally (check the album’s cover) and let joy lead the way. Whether she’s flaunting her accomplishments (the gleeful “Successful”) or relishing her “soulmate” on the sweet and tender “Pete Davidson,” a song that gets the point across with its title alone, she’s found her serenity.
Pharrell Williams and Max Martin’s Wolf Cousins songwriting and production camp are the most prolific collaborators on Sweetener. Already sure pop bets, Martin and Williams get to the core of what makes Grande worth paying attention to, letting her voice take the lead instead of drowning it in genre gimmicks. Their unique approaches to song-structure surprisingly help make it her most focused and personality-encapsulating LP yet, letting Grande’s easy way with trap phrasing find a home next to her flair for Broadway-esque dramatic runs.
Sweetener begins with a manifesto of sorts: a reworking of the Four Seasons’ “An Angel Cried” — titled “Raindrops” here and turned into a 30-second acapella premonition of what’s to come. While a bit out of place, Grande’s voice sounds absolutely superb with pop production stripped away. It’s followed by a heavily R&B leaning collection, mixing funky, clubby moments like the Williams-assisted “Blazed” and the Missy Elliott-featuring “Borderline” (though the latter’s appearance is much too short). The title track is a bouncy, almost wickedly catchy highlight, while the luxurious “R.E.M.” is a soulful, sexy romp that is the platonic ideal of the type of song Grande could and should be making for years to come.
Early release “The Light is Coming” is a weak spot: a fun beat swallowed by the repetition of an unnecessary, overly prominent voice sampled from a viral moment during a raucous town hall in Pennsylvania during the Obamacare debate (Williams has used samples from this clip twice before, including on the hit Rihanna collaboration “Lemon”).
The darker moments on Sweetener are never too bitter, thankfully. “Breathin” is an exceptional exploration of anxiety, while “Everytime” is a gorgeous, self-reflective break-up ballad. The slow-burning single “God Is a Woman” feels even more sublime as part of the total package. The centerpiece of the album, however, mixes the sour and the sweet, finding the balance between the sensual romance of the album’s plentiful love songs and the aching heartbreak of the others. “Goodnight n Go” reworks a song of the same name by one of Grande’s favorite artists, Imogen Heap. It’s a breathtaking moment of vocal interpretation from the singer, who raises the stakes both for the song’s storyline (about a girl falling in love with her friend) and for Grande herself as she makes the chorus’ falsetto seem easy.
Finding light is often much harder than drowning in darkness, but on Sweetener Grande makes moving forward from pain feel easy and, most importantly, possible. That light Grande promised has helped lead her down the path toward her best album yet, and one of 2018’s strongest pop releases to date.