Like nearly every modern pop star, Ariana Grande has flitted from genre to genre over the course of her career, easily collapsing the distance between the steroidal EDM of “Break Free” and the relaxed reggae of “Side to Side,” the clipped Eighties pop of “Love Me Harder” and the storming house of “Into You,” the hip-hop soul of “The Way” and the retro-soul of “Dangerous Woman.”
But with her new album Sweetener, she set her sights on conquering trap, the Southern hip-hop variant defined by sludgy, savage basslines and jittery swarms of drum programming. Grande is just the latest Top 40 star to acknowledge this sound — see Selena Gomez’s “Fetish,” Taylor Swift’s “End Game,” Demi Lovato’s Tell Me You Love Me and Kelly Clarkson’s “Love So Soft” and “Whole Lotta Woman.” The mass embrace of the trap template demonstrates the remarkable extent to which a once-niche style now rules modern production.
Grande tipped her fans to her latest creative zigzag with Sweetener‘s second single, “God Is a woman.” The song opens with a feint: Unadorned guitar is Grande’s only accompaniment for the first few lines. But then the punishing beat kicks in, knee-buckling on the low end while the drums splat frantically in a higher register. Grande is known for her elastic voice, one of the most flexible and forceful in the Top 40 space. But she suppresses her vocal tricks here, instead sing-rapping in a rigid, repetitive style.
“God Is a Woman” is one of at least five songs on Sweetener that pulls from the same trap playbook. During the album’s title track, Grande cuts away the beat at several junctures to display swooping vocal runs. But the hook as is curt and hard-headed as the hi-hats: “Hit it, hit it, hit it/ Flip it, flip it, flip it.”
The primary producers on Sweetener are Max Martin, his fellow Swede Ilya Salmanzadeh and Pharrell Williams, names that shape pop music — it’s notable that Grande did not decamp to Atlanta to make her album with Metro Boomin or another modern trap architect. The dominant presence on the final third of Sweetener is Thomas “TB Hits” Brown, who has been working with Grande since her debut. On 2013’s Yours Truly, Brown helped craft the neo-doo-wop “Daydreamin;'” the next year, he worked on the string-laden piano ballad “My Everything.” But on Sweetener, he helps close the album with another chunk of trap-pop, co-producing a trio of booming, ironclad beats.
That trap’s structures have made their way to a figure like Martin, who has had more success in the Top 40 than anybody over the past few decades, is proof that those skittering drums and chest-shaking basslines are now simply the vocabulary of popular music writ large. “Everytime,” one of Martin’s productions, may be the most effective hybrid on the album. At first Grande delivers an unyielding staccato rap, but she abruptly returns to supple singing on the line-ending phrase “back to you;” the effect is like a boxer following a series of short jabs with an uppercut. As more and more pop singers are forced to reckon with trap, the fusion achieved on “Everytime” offers them a path forward.