The Manchester Bombing left an indelible mark on Ariana Grande, and the singer struggled with lingering feelings of grief. When Grande leans into her emotions she produces some of her best songs to date. When she takes a back seat to the expertise of her producers, she gets lost in the shuffle.
Dangerous Woman was packed with nuggets of sheer pop perfection (‘Into You’ is the best pop song released this decade). While as a long play that album doesn’t quite hold up, Grande has proved an enduring and engaging pop front-runner.
Sweetener does seem like an attempt to address this issue, by providing a satisfying and connected album that operates as more than just hits + filler. It isn’t entirely successful in this, but does allow more cohesion by sticking to a crisp, trap-inflected blueprint throughout.
Thankfully Sweetener steers away from the plodding pace of trap music, keeping only its contemporary textures. This is still very much pop music and moves at a pleasingly brisk clip. The breezy ‘blazed’ moves on an unthreatening pitter-patter, ‘R.E.M.’ glides on stark production. There are few large statements on Sweetener but there are no snags either.
However, missing tent-pole songs means the album tends to sag. ‘no tears left to cry’ is the obvious hit single, and a puzzling & enjoyable hit single it is. ‘God is a woman’ is the best song; alt-pop as sexual discovery and showcasing a sort of dominance that is new for Ari.
‘goodnight n go’ is a fun reinterpretation of an Imogen Heap song, one which loses the innocence of the original, but does provide a grander sound than the kitsch of Heap’s ‘Goodnight & Go’.
‘borderline’ & ‘the light is coming’ feel like two interpretations of the same idea. The former features Missy Elliott, the latter Nicki Minaj. Both evoke glitchy trap and nihilistic croon, however ‘the light is coming’ is a disaster. The song sounds unfinished, relies on a sample which goes absolutely nowhere and some descending electronic effects which sound ten years out of date.
Sweetener is not the blockbuster it ought to be. It is an above-average pop album, but is too lightweight to sustain Ari’s star power. The gender-free euphemisms and lip-curling attitude will satiate her enormous gay fanbase, as well as pop casuals. However this is a missed opportunity – the Grande coronation will have to wait.