Ariana Grande has been delivering strong pop albums since she debuted with “Yours Truly” in 2013. Her voice drew instant comparisons to divas of the ’90s. Critics would talk about Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera while reviewing her work. But recently, Grande has been striving to find her own voice.
On her new album, “Sweetener,” Ariana Grande is distinctly herself, from the songwriting to the immaculate production to the incredible vocal performances. It is Grande’s boldest and most honest body of work to date.
“Sweetener” doesn’t sound like any other pop music being made right now. It’s experimental, working with odd chord changes and finding where the trap trend fits into pop music. Its embrace of trap music feels more genuine and more successful than attempts by contemporaries like Taylor Swift, Miley Cyrus and Selena Gomez.
It probably works so well because this is not Grande’s first flirtation with trap elements. More than any of her three previous albums, “Sweetener” is most sonically similar to her holiday EP “Christmas & Chill.” Released in 2015, “Christmas & Chill” was straight out of left field when it came to holiday music. It used dark synths, stuttering cadences and lots of innuendo. The EP was the first sign of a very different side of Grande — which is what could distinguish her as a unique artist if she were to stop catering to the mainstream.
And that’s exactly what she did with this album. She made the music she’s always wanted to make; the music that felt true to who she is. She stopped caring about what people wanted to hear and what people thought shouldn’t be said because she had been shown that life is too short.
When Grande decides to say whatever the hell she wants, a song like “God is a Woman” emerges. It’s “Dangerous Woman” 3.0: sexier and more powerful. The rap influenced verses provide a foil to the over the top chorus melody. The song erupts at the end with what feels like hundreds of Ariana Grande clones uniting in a gospel choir to close out the track a cappella.
On her past three albums, Ariana Grande has proven that she has a voice that comes once in a generation. She has sung all the whistle tones and done all the vocal gymnastics. On “Sweetener” however, she performs more of a vocal ballet. Equally as agile, but more graceful and less exhibitionist. She brings out new parts of her voice, and she takes overdubbing to a level that may go beyond the Beach Boys.
The vocal arrangements are what take the simple ideas of “Sweetener” to the next level. You would be hard pressed to find a major label pop record with this amount of vocal harmonies in recent years.
The song “R.E.M,” a reworked version of an old Beyonce demo, is full of dreamy and flirty harmonies that interact with the main melody and give the song a spacey atmosphere. In the refrain, Grande brings out her lower register for the first time. Though her high notes and whistle tones are what she’s famous for, her lower register is equally enticing. It’s thick and soulful and really puts the track over the top.
Another track that stands out for it’s vocal arrangement is the soulful album closer “Get Well Soon.” Written after experiencing an anxiety attack, the song is Grande at her most vulnerable. Though it’s written in the second person, it is obvious that she is at least in part talking to herself. The track is relatively sparse, just piano, bass and snaps, but Grande fills the space with a multitude of voices. So many voices in fact, that she and producer, Pharrell, maxed out the number of tracks allowed on ProTools. It’s a totally bizarre chord structure and song structure but it is so perfectly executed.
“Breathin” is another standout moment on the record. It is one of the most straightforward pop songs on the album, but likely one of the best pop songs released this year. It’s an empowerment pop song that is woke enough to acknowledge that everyone is out here struggling. Grande repeats the title to the point where it feels like a mantra used to push through dark times. Like many of the songs on “Sweetener” it is a product of and about the state of the world and the political environment, yet at a deeply personal level.
Though work on “Sweetener” was underway before the bombing at Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester last year, its effect on Grande is present throughout the album. While planning the One Love Manchester show, Grande received advice from Charlotte Campbell, mother of 15-year-old victim Olivia Campbell.
“You play the hits, you sing your heart out. You make everyone get up and dance and smile and sing along with you,” Campbell said to Grande.
It seems like Grande wanted to continue doing that when approaching the album. “Sweetener” is all about positivity, and rarely slows down to ballad tempo. The attack is never directly referenced but that makes it even more powerful.
In a time when we are told albums are becoming irrelevant, “Sweetener” is really a full body of work best appreciated as such. There isn’t one song that captures the full emotional breadth or sonics of the album. Grande takes the listener on her personal journey, and shows us that even in the most horrible situations someone or something is out there to sweeten the situation and bring us back down.