At some point in the process of listening to Ariana Grande’s fourth and most delightful album, “Sweetener,” which is slightly dominated by six songs produced and co-written by Pharrell Williams, it may occur to you: Well, of course she was going to hook up with the guy who made “Happy” one of the biggest hits of the decade. Grande has had a couple of venti-sized bitter teas to swallow in the last couple of years — a celebrity breakup and a bombing, in no particular traumatic order — so who better to go to, to make a record that’s sweet ‘n’ high?
Williams is not Grande’s only major enabler in this effort. She’s working again with the team of Max Martin and Ilya, who made significant contributions to her last album, 2016’s “Dangerous Woman.” It’s the Martin/Ilya duo responsible for the two pre-release singles you’ve already heard if you haven’t been hiding in a pop-free cave, “No More Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman.” It’s a pretty effective tag-team approach Grande has going with these super-producers. The Swedes work on the really grande-iose songs that make a dance floor emote and sweat, and Pharrell does the smaller, quirkier, cooler tunes rife with stranger beats and giddier pleasures. “Sweetener” is nothing if not an embarrassment of state-of-the-moment production riches.
That’s not all it is, thankfully. Grande has kept a bit of a poker face, having come of age in an era where being a superstar diva doesn’t necessarily require forcing your heart out onto your sleeve. As she sings in one “Sweetener” track: “I never let ‘em know too much / Hate gettin’ too emotional, yeah.” But without suddenly becoming a sob sister, she gets personal to just the right degree, co-writing a couple of songs that are overtly about clinical anxiety (“Breathin’,” “Get Well Soon”), and some others that are about pre-newlywed bliss (like the deeply cryptically titled “Pete Davidson”). And then there’s the fizz. “Sweetener” gives great fizz.
Generally, the weirder her new album is, the better. To wit: the Pharrell-helmed “Borderline,” which has a vintage Janet Jackson vocal feel but also suggests Williams thought, “what the modern rhythm nation really requires is more cowbell.” Or the gonzo June single “The Light is Coming,” in which it was decided that it was not enough that Nicki Minaj did a pretty good opening guest rap, and that Grande kind of half-raps the rest of the song, over a weird hip-hop beat that only gradually seems to coalesce with everything going on in the tune; no, what it really needed was a sample of a guy berating the late Sen. Arlen Specter at a public meeting throughout the entire tune. You could find this annoying, but you’d be wrong: “The Light is Coming” is a laugh at the same time as it’s a genuine call to casting out darkness.
“God is a Woman” is, like the other Martin/Ilya tracks, a little less odd… unless you listen to it in tandem with the Dave Meyers video, at which point all bets are off for over-the-top batcrap-craziness. (Grande can break up with Davidson or Mac Miller— it’s really none of our business — but she should never, ever break up with Meyers.) With or without the imagery, you quickly get the idea that this is not a treatise on feminist theology. It’s about gynocentric control, and Grande takes Madonna’s old sex-as-spirituality provocations to a hilarious extreme by making herself the object of erotic worship. (Madonna, recognizing a kindred spirit, showed up in the song’s video for a spoken cameo but is absent from the album version.)
You could mistake the chutzpah in “God is a Woman” for arrogance if it weren’t clear there’s something a bit tongue-in-cheek about its sexuality. There’s another moment on the album that you could wrongly take as an ego trip: “Successful,” in which Grande sings, “Yeah, it feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful.” This isn’t a dumb brag — it’s Pharrell (who wrote this one solo) trying to refocus the meaning of “success” and make it not a dirty word for young women. It’s one of the moments on the album that manages to feel empowering, in a roundabout way, without any of the hokeyness empowerment usually entails.
If you dread pop songs with pointedly positive messages — a reasonable dread, to be sure — “Sweetener” might have you rethinking that position. (There’s one song about staying in a toxic relationship, “Everytime,” and that usually makes for good drama, but it’s actually the least interesting, most conventional-feeling track on the album.) The album comes to a nice, nervously affirming close with “Get Well Soon,” which is Grande’s pep talk to herself, and to her similarly plagued fans, that this panic attack too shall pass.
“Get Well Soon,” which Pharrell accompanies mostly with piano and finger-snaps, puts the sparsest arrangement on the collection underneath Grande’s most florid singing. If you’re of that mindset where you just want to hear her do her diva thing, in a “Honeymoon Avenue” kind of way, it’s a pleasing climax, and you might even think for a second: Why didn’t she do more of that earlier on the album?
But that would be to negate how skillful her vocalizing is on the other songs without the tighter, flash-less confines of a set of mostly charmingly unusual pop songs that almost all clock in at less than four minutes. Maybe the best track on the album is “R.E.M.,” a song about a dream lover that lives up to its promisingly gauzy title (and caused more than a few fans of the Michael Stipe-led band of the same name to buzz excitedly on social media — sigh). There are no obvious vocal gymnastics of the sort you expect from a Grande-type singer, but it’s a small marvel of interlocking self-harmonies — almost a modern R&B-pop analog to a “Pet Sounds” aesthetic. It’s a producer’s track, to be sure, but it’s hard to think of too many singers besides Grande who could nail its intricate gauze. She’s a singer who, in instances like this, knows how to turn it down to get us up.