×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Album Review: Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’

How sweet it is.

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.

Ariana Grande
“Sweetener”
Republic Records
Producers: Pharrell Williams, ILYA, Max Martin, Hitboy, Tommy Brown, Brian Malik Baptiste, Charles Anderson, Michael Foster,

Popular on Variety

Album Review: Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener'

More Music

  • Taylor Swift performs at Amazon Music's

    Why Isn't Taylor Swift Doing a Big U.S. Tour for 'Lover'?

    Industry chatter was buzzing for weeks: Why hasn’t Taylor Swift announced a tour yet? Her new album, “Lover,” is a hit; she’s already performed on TV and did a ten-song set at a blockbuster Amazon Prime concert in New York in June, and she and her band clearly are ready. And yet touring industry insiders [...]

  • U2, Seattle 14 May 2017

    U2 to Finish 'Joshua Tree' 2019 Tour With Band's First Gig in India

    U2 is wrapping up its 2019 “The Joshua Tree” tour with a concert at Mumbai’s DY Patil Stadium, on Dec. 15 – the first time the group will have performed in India. The newly added date comes at the end of an Asia-Pacific tour that was announced months ago. The tour is a continuation of [...]

  • Crime Placeholder

    Former AEG, First Access Exec Adam Lublin Charged With Sexual Abuse, Burglary

    Adam Lublin, a former executive at AEG and First Access Entertainment, was arraigned Monday morning in Manhattan Criminal Court on two counts of burglary and one count of sexual abuse, according to the New York Post. The executive allegedly snuck into a neighbor’s apartment, sexually abused her and stole her undergarments. According to the report, [...]

  • Kendrick Lamar House Manhattan Beach

    Kendrick Lamar Drops Nearly $10 Million on Manhattan Beach Mansion

    When he’s not performing to packed arenas worldwide — the international “Damn” tour wrapped up last year with over $62 million in gross receipts — Kendrick Lamar has long resided in L.A.’s South Bay region, specifically in the posh seaside city of Manhattan Beach. And after a reported long spell as an area home renter, [...]

  • Benjamin Wallfisch - scoring session, Abbey

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch Signs With Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency

    Composer Benjamin Wallfisch has signed with the Gorfaine/Schwartz Agency (GSA) for worldwide representation, in partnership with London-based agency COOL Music Ltd. A top composer, whose scoring credits include “It Chapter Two,” Shazam!” Hellboy,” “Hidden Figures” and “Hostile Planet,” among others, Wallfisch has worked on over 75 feature films and is a member of the BAFTA [...]

  • Spotify logo is presented on a

    Spotify VP Paul Vogel Talks Subscription Prices, Label Licenses, Podcasts

    The annual Goldman Sachs Communacopia Conference gives representatives from major companies the opportunity to present to the investment community, and Paul Vogel, Spotify’s VP and head of financial planning & analysis, treasury and investor relations, spoke on the streaming giant’s behalf on Tuesday morning. While many of his comments were statements frequently heard in the [...]

  • Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions

    Def Jam, Astralwerks Launch Label Divisions in South East Asia

    Universal Music Group today announced what it calls a significant expansion of its recorded music operations across South East Asia with the launch of two new label divisions: Def Jam South East Asia, to focus on the hip-hop scene within the region, and Astralwerks Asia, a label “with a true focus on nurturing talent within Asia across [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content