Republic Records
August 20, 2018 at 08:00 AM EDT
We gave it an A-

Over the past five years, Ariana Grande has established herself as a constantly on-the-rise pop star with an impressive and canny sense of taste. Armed with a coterie of producers and songwriters — including perpetual pop powerhouse Max Martin — the 25-year-old singer has established a versatile sense of range, shifting from electro-pop’s neon glow to various strains of big-tent EDM and the perpetually evolving confines of hip-hop and R&B without batting so much as an eyelash. Grande’s selection of collaborators has been similarly on-trend, occasionally unlocking previously unexplored strengths in her work with artists ranging from Zedd, the Weeknd, and Mac Miller. Her pop-cultural currency has possessed a bulletproof quality; how else does one prominently feature a pop pariah like Iggy Azalea on a single like “Problem” from 2014’s My Everything and walk away not only unscathed, but with a bonafide and critically pleasing hit?

The sonic palette that Grande works in frequently reflects where chart-pop is currently at, or the point at which it’s about to arrive — which is precisely what makes her fourth full-length, Sweetener, such a surprising left turn. A practical album-length collaboration with Pharrell Williams, who holds writing and production credits on the majority of its 15 tracks, Sweetener is decidedly and boldly out of step with current-day pop sounds. At a time when Post Malone’s oily, empty genre-blend continues to dominate nearly every inch of pop and R&B imaginable, Grande has seemingly ditched any attempt to push either genre forward, instead retreating into the breezy, clean, and nerdy (not to mention N.E.R.D.-y) sounds representing the 2000s-era reign of Williams and Chad Hugo’s production team the Neptunes. Quite possibly the only way that Sweetener reflects current trends in 2018’s largely trendless pop arena is its embrace of negative space throughout; instead of the buzzsaw synths and booming bass that’s defined previous Grande highs, there’s cool-handed guitar licks and crisp, clean percussion you could practically eat off of.

To this point, Grande’s held a sterling reputation as a singles artist, her albums’ obvious highlights possessing a near-ubiquitous presence on pop radio with more than a few deep-cut gems tucked away in the tracklists. The relative success of Sweetener singles “God is a Woman” and “No Tears Left to Cry” suggest that she hasn’t yet lost her touch in that department — but within the context of the album proper, they also represent Sweetener‘s least impactful moments, disrupting the record’s singular, subtle vibe. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; rather, it speaks to the artistic evolution that Sweetener represents for Grande, a consciously auteurist gesture cementing her as an album-oriented artist.

Despite possessing a nearly incomparable vocal range, Grande leans on her lower register more than ever here, her every sigh and swirl adding texture to Sweetener‘s alluringly blank sound. As much as the album’s commitment to an overarching vibe represents new artistic territory for Grande, it’s also a throwback of sorts to the beginnings of her career — specifically, her 2013 debut Yours Truly, which featured heavy writing and production contributions from Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds to craft a velvety, lush, and youthful take on 90s-era hip-hop and R&B styles.

But more than any of her previous works, Grande is in the driver’s seat behind Sweetener‘s wheel. As she revealed in a Time cover story earlier this year, the album represents the first time she took on lead writing credits, and it feels unmistakably personal as a result. Her sly sense of humor — an under-appreciated facet, perhaps, of Grande’s public persona — creeps in during “god is a woman,” a bold declaration of deification by way of sexual ecstasy that doubles as one of the cleverest lyrical flexes in pop music this year. She takes a similarly boasting tone over the wheezing, pleasing funk of “Successful,” ticking off her achievements before stating simply, “It feels so good to be so young/ And have this fun and be successful.”

Sweetener feels most personal in its evocation of the dizzying smack that new love can possess — a vibe cultivated, no doubt, by Grande’s much-discussed and ultra-public engagement to comedian and Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson (whose name adorns the title of the album’s brief, undulating penultimate track). Sensuality abounds, particularly on the title track’s plush, declarative passion — but there’s also smaller details reflecting the simplicity of starting anew, and the thrill of exploring human connection. “Goodnight n Go” flips a sample of Imogen Heap’s 2005 single “Goodnight and Go,” as Grande implores her paramour to skip the train home in favor of staying up all night and talking before exclaiming, “We’d be good/ We’d be great together.” It reflects an explicitly devotional take: the intoxicating desire to lose oneself in a new romance — and it’s similarly impossible not to give in to Sweetener as a whole, a fascinating and sneakily complex pop album that adds new creative wrinkles to Grande’s already estimable repertoire.

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