It would hardly be an understatement to say Ariana Grande is the biggest phenomenon in pop music right now. At 25, she has already landed two albums at the Billboard no. 1 spot, as well as a third at no. 2, and the number of her monthly listeners on Spotify is approaching 40 million. She has also regularly collaborated with other artists, including several songs with Nicki Minaj and the recent single “Dance to This” with Troye Sivan, from his upcoming album “Bloom.”
Her fourth studio album, “Sweetener,” which debuted at no. 1 on iTunes, is in large part a return to familiar themes of love, sex and romance, and the singer continues to bring her vocal A-game. But it’s also Grande’s first major release since her 2017 Manchester concert was the target of a terrorist attack.
In contrast to “Dangerous Woman” (2016), which featured hits “Into You” and “Side to Side,” the new record takes a more reflective tone. It prefers a sample-heavy, often futuristic-sounding R&B to the straightforward dance-pop sound of earlier hits like “Break Away.” It’s a sophisticated album that is both provocative — see the single entitled “God is a woman” — and irresistibly likeable.
With the exception of the short introductory track entitled “raindrops (an angel cried),” the first several songs were written and produced by rapper Pharrell Williams, who collaborated with Grande on several tracks which turn out to be the album’s most experimental.
The song “blazed” (featuring Williams) has a strange, uptempo bass and percussion groove with otherwise sparse instrumentation. Over the percussion-heavy accompaniment, Williams relies on his falsetto while Grande sings with a robust ‘90s R&B sound. The following track, “the light is coming” (featuring Nicki Minaj), is another somewhat odd track that relies on highly repetitive samples.
The first several songs feel like yawn and stretch, a sort of warmup for the rest of the album, which truly hits its stride with “R.E.M.” And once it gets going, it doesn’t miss a beat.
“R.E.M” has a sexy R&B/rap sound, reminiscent of artists like Frank Ocean. This, in turn, is followed by “God is a woman,” released as the album’s second single. The song cleverly employs sacred language to talk about profane, sensual things. But there is no ambiguity when Grande sings in her sensuous soprano, “When all is said and done/You’ll believe God is a woman.”
The record’s title number is a cheery, R&B-infused pop track. It’s an interesting place from which to draw the album’s title, which could have just as easily been “no tears left to cry” or “God is a woman.” It’s neither the best written nor the most powerful song on the record. What it captures, however, is a certain defiant optimism that runs through the music. After the tragedy in Manchester, Grande is chin-up, looking at the brighter side of things.
The album’s lead single, “no tears left to cry,” deals explicitly with the need to move on after a tragedy: “Ain’t got no tears left to cry/So I’m pickin’ it up.” The song is one of several collaborations between Grande and Swedish songwriters ILYA and Max Martin, who also produced the multi-platinum lead single “Problem” from her sophomore album. “no tears left to cry” shares a similar musical feel that is as warm as it is methodical. The collaboration is an unsurprising pick for the lead single, and the formula appears to have worked again: the music video is just shy of 500 million views on Youtube.
There are so many good songs on the album that it’s almost hard to choose favorites — “better off,” “everytime” and “goodnight n go” are all solid contenders. The song “breathin,” which deals with anxiety, is another well-crafted and catchy collaboration with ILYA. One thing, however, is clear: “Sweetener” is album from an artist at the height of her powers, a pop diva for a new generation.