Ariana Grande Gets Love-Drunk With ‘Sweetener’

In the pop R&B realm, you have to be either a skilled and showy singer, eager to demonstrate your octave range, or a personality with your finger on the pulse of pop culture. Ariana Grande is both, and has the game down to a science. That said, there have been roadblocks — for example, a suicide bomber at last year’s concert in Manchester. In such times of distress, one might find solace in such outlets as ice cream, danish, or pastry. Grande, being of the philanthropic mold, has gone well beyond, and shared her indulgence with us all, releasing a new album titled, “Sweetener.” It’s a testament to the idea of resilience, positive thinking. Worlds away from Grande’s ex Mac Miller’s strained and tortured recovery album, Grande’s new record is a giddy, love-drunk affair, much thanks to her newfound fiance, SNL’s Pete Davidson, who bares a song to his name. The latest release finds Grande taking a bolder sonic direction, with tunes that take risks in conveying a certain mindset. There’s a unified aesthetic to this album, making it stand apart from Grande’s previous work. There are more liberties taken with arrangements, and a free-form boldness that would come across as jarring if not executed with so much, well, sweetness. Grande is banking on the “sweetener” idea, handing you a bizarre cocktail that might approach avant garde fare if not saturated with heaps of sugar.

Single “The Light Is Coming,” featuring Nicki Minaj, is a banger. Minaj only drops a few lines, but condenses so much of her flair that it’s enough. The beat features a Tweety bird chromatic whistle that recalls UK garage, but reimagined, over a brittle, cartoonish beath, with dirty bass and hard snares. Grande and Minaj complement each other, and the track serves to give definition to the sonic persona that Grande assumes on this album — very much the R&B counterpart of Nicki Minaj — a colorful caricature of sugar and spice and everything nice — and also a lot of venom.

“R.E.M.” marks the point where the album takes on its distinctive color. It’s a sparse arrangement with whimsical percussion, involving a constant sampled breath, giving the track the feeling of something dreamed up. Grande repeats, “‘Cause I don’t wanna wake up,” honing in on a recurrent theme — the idea of being so enraptured that you fear it all being just a dream. She rides the wave with “God Is a Woman,” a well-chosen single. It’s the inevitable empowerment song that we’ve come to expect from any female R&B album, and as such, the lyrics are much the standard fare, but the song packs a real punch. A particularly memorable line is “Baby, lay me down at let’s pray.” Some pastor somewhere dropped his bible, and totally lost it.  

On the title track, Grande generously borrows a melody from the Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love,” but veers off just short of plagiarism. Then, she goes wild, with a chorus of “Get it, get it… Hit it, hit it.” She sounds like she’s skipping stones down a path, frolicking in full princess costume, with a thugged-out entourage spurring her on. It’s absurd, and you’ve got to hand to Grande for going pretty far out. This song articulates the central message of the album: “When life deals us cards… you come through like the sweetener you are.”

“Successful” takes things to an extreme in its la-di-da, barbie doll ridiculousness, with lyrics like, “Yeah, it feels so good to be so young / And have this fun and be successful.” “Everytime” follows with relationship drama 101. Grande sings, “You get high and call on the regular / I get weak and fall like a teenager,” with giggles in the background. Taken with another song, “Better Off,” it becomes quite clear that this is a jab at Mac Miller. In the latter track, Grande taunts, “Nah, I’d rather just watch you smoke and drink.” Grande’s carefree, devil-may-care attitude seems a bit spiteful. At any rate, it makes for some effective, airy pop. “No Tears Left to Cry,” another single and another banger, begins with misty ambiance, and erupts into a bouncy, colorful, disco-style beat, so cheery that it could be mocking you. This is exacerbated by Grande’s baby-voice repetitions of “I’m picking it up, picking it up.” It sounds like someone who, having discovered that the physical act of smiling actually makes people feel happy, is forcibly smiling, in sets of increasing reps, with military discipline. It’s all very cheery and lovely — just a bit over the top.

Grande reveals the object of all this fanaticism, straight up, with a track titled, “Pete Davidson,” the sonic equivalent of a 4AM Las Vegas tattoo. In Grande’s defense, reading between the lines is so played out, and this level of transparency is riveting. The song features one of the record’s most memorable lines, “I thought you into my life, woah.” Grande mentioned, on Jimmy Fallon, that she joked about marrying Pete Davidson years before they began dating. If we take this as true, it’s no surprise that this album is such a head-in-the clouds, giddy affair. “Pete Davidson” is more of an interlude than a song, with splattering percussion dancing with Grande’s syllables, suddenly taking off into loose ““ooh-ooh” harmonies, then fading off, giving the sense of acting on whims, giving way to temptations. The final song, “Get Better,” again captures the feeling of being spacey, with Grande singing, “down down down” in a silly, frivolous way, caught up in her giddy headyspace Skittering hi-hats. She drops possibly the most millennial line of all time, with, “Unfollow fear and just say, ‘You are blocked,’” and concludes with the uplifting sentiment, “Just know there is so much room at the top.”  

So, Grande has found Davidson, found new light, and recorded an album from the clouds. Such saccharine material is, of course, a type of PDA, eye-rolling fare, but Grande seems to preempt this issue by making her whole record so silly that you’re left with no other reasonable option than to shrug it off and wish the two well. More importantly, this whole headspace seems to have been a somewhat revolutionary force in Grande’s music. The album runs like a trap-informed, spacey cartoon, giving a very unique snapshot of a very specific mentality. As always, Grande’s singing is top-notch, and on the whole, “Sweetener” sets itself apart.

Sweetener” is available Aug. 17 on Apple Music.