Critic's Notebook: Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener' Brims With Breezy Pop Confections

Ariana Grande - Sweetener Stairs Video - Screengrab - H 2018

The pop star’s latest album is an effervescent — and even slightly eccentric — effort that finds her coming into her own as an artist and adult.

Ariana Grande has been having a real wackadoo year, and her new album, Sweetener, is a breezy love letter to her goony-but-lovable beau Pete Davidson, being weird, smoking weed and pop experimentation. The record positions her as the No. 1 pop girl in the world as she continues her metamorphosis from squeaky-clean Disney kid to unpredictable adult. It’s her most human offering to date.

In theory, this album comes out at the end of the summer cycle, but with our oppressive heat stretching well into the fall as the world burns, the record offers the relief of a zephyr in the form of a weed cloud. For this, her fourth long player, Grande, 25, enlists the production help of usual suspects Max Martin and ILYA as well as Pharrell Williams and Missy Elliott. The results are surprisingly cohesive — like a proper album rather than a mishmash of singles, unlike most current mega-artists who have too much money and too many producers on call. 

What ties it all together is Grande’s voice, her pixielike energy and, of course, the fact that she seems to be deeply, madly, head-over-heels in love with Davidson. Because Ariana is actually talented, it’s fine that she’s also “extra,” but people are always concern-trolling her. Grande feels weirder and more creatively unshackled than ever, and this surreal “Who gives a shit? We’re in love!” energy permeates her new work.

Like Mariah Carey, with whom she’s relentlessly compared, Grande is known for her pipes above all else. On Sweetener, her voice is still the star and she’s careful not to overplay her hand with too much bravura “look at my range” noodling. 

Some of the Pharrell-assisted songs like “Successful” and closer “Get Well Soon" sound paint-by-numbers Pharrell and radio friendly, as usual. Thankfully, Grande elevates them to something more. But it’s on the stranger tracks, like her collaboration with Pharrell and Nicki Minaj, “The Light Is Coming,” where things get really interesting. The tune bafflingly samples a health care debate from the '00s. Is there some deeper meaning to be gleaned here? I don’t know, and I like not knowing. 

On the whole, it feels like Grande, et al, were aiming for an Aaliyah-esque laid-back R&B pop princess vibe, and it mostly hits the mark. You hear the similarities the most on numbers like “Sweetener” and “Borderline,” which features Elliott. The latter song feels ripped right out of 1998, but not as an exercise in pastiche; like most of these jams, it moves. 

Regardless, the record proceeds briskly and doesn’t feel overstuffed with ideas like, say, Minaj’s most recent offering. One could probably shave a few tracks off here (“Everytime” and “Breathin” veer toward the generic EDM side) and have something even tighter, but it’s a minor gripe in an era when saggy records are the new normal. 

The entire aesthetic comes together on “No Tears Left to Cry,” the lead and strongest single. It’s got a fresh, shuffly break beat, with hints of freestyle and Miami bass. 

While some of the record sounds adjacent to indie sad-girl pop, Grande avoids diving too deep in that pool because she always keeps it confectionary and light, which is why Sweetener is the best name for an album of hers. She has a base effervescence that any great pop star needs.

Sweetener is ultimately an album about her relationships. “Better Off” is probably about her ex Mac Miller and his struggles with substance abuse, but it doesn’t come off as petty dragging. The penultimate track, “Pete Davidson,” is a song in which she reiterates — over and over — how happy she is. The album closes with 40 seconds of silence to commemorate the attack at her show in Manchester last year, a fitting nod to an event that will likely stay with her and her fans forever. It’s a serious coda to an otherwise uplifting album, but it doesn’t feel misplaced. 

Comparisons to other divas aside, Sweetener finds Grande really coming into her own, as an artist and person. Being overwhelmed with love and dopamine has proved a good look for her.