There aren’t many people in music that I’m rooting for as much as Ariana Grande. Her last album, 2016’s Dangerous Woman was her best release to that showed her diversity and growth as an artist. Then after putting together the One Love Manchester concert last year (one of the most touching and powerful actions of any artist in my lifetime), I was team Ariana all the way. As her fourth album, Sweetener arrives, it’s hard to admit that this album doesn’t quite meet the high expectations I had for it.
Things started promisingly with the first single and career highlight, ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ released in April. It’s one of the year’s most remarkable singles. Grande shows off her always impressive vocal range, especially her control in the chorus. As she belts out her ad-libs towards the end, the song reaches, ‘Like A Prayer’ levels of euphoria with the choir and heavenly strings. The big production makes it a bit of an anomaly on Sweetener as it’s mainly made up of songs that are so slight.
Pharrell Williams co-writes and produces half of Sweetener. Unfortunately his contributions don’t reach his earlier highs (and he had many). ‘Blazed’ comes across as an inferior version of something from the first few Kelis’ albums. ‘The Light Is Coming’ doesn’t work with the CNN sample becoming jarring as it continues throughout. Over a fluffy melody, Grande gives a playful vocal on the title track, but the distracting ad-libs from Williams are highly irritating. ‘Borderline’ is a Williams-on-autopilot co-write and features Missy Elliott. Whilst it’s nice to see Elliott still in action, she phones it in on her brief performance. These productions share similarities with what made Gwen Stefani’s, The Sweet Escape a slightly underwhelming and underwritten album.
Swedish producer Ilya Salmanzadeh has produced some of Ariana’s finest moments (‘Into You’, ‘Greedy’, ‘One Last Time’) and he produces a handful of songs here. Along with, ‘No Tears Left To Cry’, he collaborated on the album’s clear highlights. ‘Everytime’ features Grande addressing frustrations with an ex: “you get high and call on the regular, I get weak and fall like a teenager”. It has a great hook and an atmospheric minimal backing. It’s miles away from the dated R&B of previous track, ‘Successful’ (the sequencing clearly highlights the drastic difference in quality).
Salmanzadeh also produces the obvious next single, ‘Breathin’ which comes close to the genius of ‘No Tears Left To Cry’. Grande addresses her issues with anxiety as she repeats, “you tell me every time, just keep breathing and breathing and breathing” as a mantra. When the beat drops for the second chorus, it’s so thrilling that it accentuates the flaws of the album’s sleepy and uneven first half. The spinning guitar solo is also a nice touch.
‘Better Off’ and ‘Goodnight N Go’ are delightfully breezy and help rally the stronger second half with warm performances from Grande. Her vocal on the latter (a part Imogen Heap cover), is quite stunning as a loved up Grande sings, “we’ll have drinks and talk about things, and any excuse to stay awake with you”. ‘Get Well Soon‘ ends the album positively as she sings, “you can work your way to the top” on this ode to looking out for each other and overcoming hardship. These songs recapture the sweetness that made her debut, Yours Truly so promising.
The issues with Sweetener aren’t necessarily Grande herself. Her vocals are outstanding throughout (especially the increased use of her lower register). It’s evident she wanted to make a low-key upbeat album and she does sounds comfortable in that mode. She’s taken a slight left turn with some quirky artistic shifts in order to not repeat Dangerous Woman which is an admirable move. Sweetener ends up being hard to fully connect with as the songwriting can be meandering in places and needs more of the sharpness of her best work. Hopefully this works as a transitional release and the glimpses of brilliance here will be more fully realised next time.
Sweetener is out now on Republic.