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Ariana Grande - Sweetener Music Album Reviews

After years of searching, Ariana Grande has found her true voice. Sweetener is an exemplary pop album, radiating with low-key joy and newfound love.

Ariana Grande’s journey from child star to “human cupcake” to heir apparent to the diva throne has been centered around discovering the song that defines her. Though her soprano is instantly recognizable—floating from sultry melismas to whistle singing, elocution be damned—locating her in the hits has been difficult at times. Her last two albums, 2014’s My Everything and 2016’s Dangerous Woman, were solid but musically scattershot, filled with trendy guests and weighed down by her bad-girl alter-ego. For Grande to ascend to the next creative level, she’d need more than just the range.

Sweetener, Grande’s first album since the 2017 bombing at her Manchester concert, feels more honest and distinct than any of her past work. Perhaps because tragedy has a way of revealing our true selves, the 25-year-old star finally allows herself to just take things as they come. She doesn’t force the heart-wrenching emotion of it all into tearful ballads and message-heavy anthems, but instead lets the low-key joy of the title track radiate across the album. The best parts of Sweetener have her looking for hope and stumbling upon the glow of new love. By the time you reach the interlude about her comedian fiancé Pete Davidson called “pete davidson,” where the word “happy” is repeated 22 times in just over a minute, whatever cynical snapshot of their quickie engagement that may have formed between That Lollipop Photo and reports of Big Dick Energy has fallen away. Let the yung diva love in peace.

Grande co-wrote more songs than usual (10 out of 15) and formed a clear bond with Pharrell, who serves as a songwriter and producer across Sweetener’s stronger half. His funk-lite idiosyncrasies set a bright tone and help elevate the record’s more conventional song structures. Grande and Williams leave themselves plenty of room to play around with texture in clever ways, particularly when it comes to layered vocals and skittering percussion. Set to little more than panting, tongue clicks, and keyboard orbs, “R.E.M” finds novel ways for Grande to expand her vocal repertoire. Singing in a stream of consciousness style about the man in her dreams, she flows in and out of R&B crooning, doo-wop vocal runs, gospel harmonizing, cheeky sing-talking, and a surprisingly precise rap flow (“‘Scuse me, um? I love you/I know that’s not the way to start a conversation, trouble”). She doesn’t even need a money note to stamp her mark.

The non-Pharrell tracks come courtesy of past Grande collaborators like Max Martin, ILYA, and TB Hits, and largely tap into the ongoing trap influence on the Top 40. Not one of them is outright filler, but an ode to a toxic ex like “everytime” is markedly less original—the kind of bad-decision-making set to ominous thumping that’s all over the charts. Grande’s got her own new rules, though: She tweaks the daydreaming of Imogen Heap into the throbbing EDM twinkle of “goodnight n go” and turns the melancholy of Drake into a meditation on anxiety with “breathin.” Neither is a direct extension of her work with Williams, but both feel like natural fits on an album all about finding the light.

Grande may have delivered more of a full-album vibe than a bangers-filled juggernaut, but there is at least one career-defining moment here—the song she has been looking for, wrapped in an unassuming package. Sweetener ends with “get well soon,” the sort of freeform, self-help soul ballad you’d maybe expect to round out a Beyoncé opus. Anyone who knows how gracefully Grande handled the horrific events at her Manchester show last year will recognize an equally graceful response to her own emotional aftermath in this song. Channeling all the conflicting voices in her head, Grande sings striking downbeat counter-melodies of “girl what’s wrong witchu come back down.” She soothes herself with her own luscious harmonies, urges fans to take care of one another, and modestly assures that anyone can work their way to the top. Like much of Sweetener, the song is musically sparse but encompasses a kaleidoscope of vocal tones. It is here, four albums in, that the true multitudes of her voice, and by extension herself, blossom.

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