Regardless of any backlash that may ensue, pushing boundaries is arguably one of the best things an artist can do, especially in our current era of music—where music streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music have given rise to independent artists releasing single after single who will probably never make an album. But for those of us who still rely on our favorite pop singers to deliver new studio albums that will both satisfy and inspire listeners while also strengthening the artistry of the artist, Ariana Grande does just that on Sweetener. For the most part.
Even prior to the events of May 2017 in Manchester, England, Ariana Grande was well-loved among mainstream music critics who constantly called her a young Mariah Carey and among her fiercely loyal fanbase, who undoubtedly have a strong LGBT presence. I’ve never been a huge Grande fan—in fact, ask anyone who knew me well between 2014 and 2016 and they’ll tell you I more than disliked her—but I think what bothered me more than her tendency to sing so high only dogs can hear (as is the same reason I’ve never loved Mariah Carey) combined with her apparent inability to enunciate her lyrics was the fact that she quickly became a pop star who was lauded an icon before she had even done anything iconic, most likely thanks to her largely gay fanbase, in the same vein as other gay icons who will be defended until death do they part. And I take no issue with that concept, as I do it myself, but in my honest opinion I have never found Ariana Grande to be an artist who pushed boundaries that hadn’t already been pushed, or an artist who made profound public statements or endorsements that other artists hadn’t done a thousand times before her. Around 2016, when Grande released her third studio album Dangerous Woman, I decided to stop being such a snob with what I listened to and started giving her music an honest attempt, and I liked her new material much more than her previous material that had turned me off in the past. Branching out from the pop-EDM singles that had made her radio famous in 2014, Grande found a somewhat unique sound and an image that fit her well with Dangerous Woman, proving (at least to me) that she was capable of finding her sound in a pop music market flooded by generic EDM. Also, I think my homosexual membership card would be revoked if I didn’t at least like some of Dangerous Woman (I mean, c’mon, find me someone who doesn’t love “Into You” because I want to yell at them).
In the midst of her Dangerous Woman Tour, an Islamist terrorist detonated a bomb as people were leaving her concert in Manchester, killing 23 and injuring more than 100, several of which were children. It’s no secret that the terrorist attack affected Grande in a grave way, shown most recently when she broke down in tears during a promotional interview for Sweetener with Beats 1 Radio. Pharrell Williams, who worked with Grande on most of the new album, alluded to the fact that her record label and even the industry started viewing Ariana and her new work differently after the bombing, suggesting it now gives her another artistic edge that others lack. And when it comes down to it, very few other contemporary music artists have dealt with people being killed by a terrorist attack at their concert, and you could even say very few other artists are as sensitive and down-to-earth as Grande is. At the end of the day, having an emotional meltdown while discussing the fact that 23 innocent people died at one of her concerts proves that she is a human being capable of genuine human emotion, which can only strengthen an artist’s connection with fans and the public’s opinion of her. But does it strengthen her music?
On her latest studio effort Sweetener, released last Friday, Grande collaborated largely with Pharrell Williams, who produced 6 of the album’s 15 tracks. But whether or not Williams does good work here doesn’t seem to be the issue; last November, he told the Los Angeles Times that the things that Grande has to say on her next album are “pretty next-level.” But most notably, Grande’s manager Scooter Braun set the stage for her next album when he told Variety that it was time for her to have her song. “She has such an extraordinary voice and it’s time for her to sing the songs that define her,” he said. “Whitney, Mariah, Adele … when they sing, that’s their song. Ariana has big vocal moments; it’s time for her song.” One would think that Grande had found her sound or her song on Dangerous Woman with songs like the title track (which had actually been offered to Rihanna first), or “Greedy,” “Into You,” or “Side to Side.” But as Ariana reminds us on Sweetener, R&B has always been her game, and as much as the Mariah Carey comparisons very quickly grow tiresome, she is following in her footsteps by doing her best to stay in the parameters of contemporary R&B. We remember when Grande burst on the pop scene in 2014 with huge hits like “Problem,” “Break Free,” and “Love Me Harder,” but we very easily forget that she made clear she was an R&B artist on her debut studio album Yours Truly in 2013, which saw contributions from producers like Babyface who helped solidify Grande as perhaps the only contemporary to an artist like Mariah, with the high notes to prove it. We may have lost sight of it on parts of My Everything (her second studio album from 2014), but aside from the dance-pop moments on Dangerous Woman, it was also very R&B heavy. So the proposition from her manager that it was time for Grande to “have her song” could only suggest it was time for her to grow as an artist—something that, arguably, can only be done by pushing boundaries.
In the months leading up to Sweetener’s release, it seemed to me that Grande seemed unfocused in her new era of music, releasing the strong lead single “No Tears Left to Cry” in April only to then release her latest collaboration with Nicki Minaj in June, “The Light Is Coming,” which is just…no. Offbeat rap, electropop beats, and the same chorus repeated five thousand times? No. Grande’s upcoming fourth studio album was also perhaps overshadowed by her public relationship and then fast engagement to comedian and Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, and the promotion quickly shifted from her new music to her new relationship (most of which was certainly not her fault or her choosing, I’m sure). The second official single followed soon after, “God is a Woman,” which gave me back a little faith that the album wasn’t going to be complete trash but also that it was clearly going to explore multiple different sounds. As far as pushing boundaries on Sweetener, Grande proves that she can thrive regardless of sound or production. Pharrell Williams’ tracks, while interestingly mixed, are highly experimental and do not provide any of the album’s standout moments. Sweetener’s strongest moments come from Grande’s previous collaborators Max Martin and Ilya, who produced the strong “No Tears Left to Cry” and the contagiously catchy “Breathin.” But the album’s highest achievement, it seems, is what Scooter Braun said it was time for Ariana to have—her song—and she more than finds that on “God is a Woman.” The track fits Grande’s voice perfectly and embodies her R&B artistry perhaps more than any single she has ever released. As far as “having her song” goes, she has it on Sweetener (perhaps more than once; despite the shifts in production, all tracks on the album fit Grande’s voice quite well), knowing that sometimes the best things can come out of experimenting with new things and also proving she’s not shy of it, either. I wouldn’t say the experimental sound is imaginative or revolutionary, but it’s enough to give Grande her moment, and satisfy even the tamest of Ariana fans.
Jeffrey’s favorite tracks from Sweetener: “No Tears Left to Cry,” “God is a Woman,” “Breathin,” “Everytime,” and “Goodnight n Go”