Ariana Grande is upside down on her new album cover for good reason.
Since the release of her fantastic third album Dangerous Woman two years ago, the world’s most gleefully goofy pop star’s life has been in upheaval. Most prominently, her May 2017 concert in Manchester was the site of a bombing that killed 22 people — the deadliest UK terrorist event since the London transit bombings in 2005. She responded as gracefully as one could hope, including a massive benefit concert back in Manchester less than two weeks later.
More recently, her personal life has also been thrown for a loop. She broke up with rapper Mac Miller this past May after two years, calling their relationship “toxic” and indicating that his substance abuse played a role in the split: “I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be.” (Miller was arrested for a DUI and hit and run days after the breakup.) Immediately, Grande began dating Saturday Night Live comedian Pete Davidson, who proposed a month (a day?) into their relationship. The two have been publicly googly-eyed all summer.
All of this tumult comes to bear on Sweetener, the album Grande released last Friday. Or at least it seems to. There are songs about falling in and out of love, about coping with trauma and triumphing over hardship. Grande has explicitly explained how some of the tracks relate to her experience, such as “Breathin,” which channels the panic attacks that followed the Manchester bombing into ecstatic dance-pop perseverance: “Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’.”
The masterful album closer “Get Well Soon” deals with the aftermath of a panic attack as well, but with finger snaps, staccato piano chords, and an increasingly busy array of Arianas. A miniature suite that keeps piling on layers without losing its intimate scale, it sounds like a woman willing herself to heal through positive thinking, as if she’s conjuring a cheering section from within her own subconscious. Just before that there’s also the self-explanatory “Pete Davidson,” a lovey-dovey interlude with lyrics like “Universe must have my back/ Fell from the sky into my lap/ And I know you know that you’re my soulmate and all that.”
Other times, we’re left to infer. But it’s hard not to hear the melancholy slow drift “Better Off,” with its allusions to half-hearted commitment and a smoking, drinking deadbeat boyfriend, as a treatise on the end of Grande’s relationship with Miller — especially with Grande strongly insinuating as much on Twitter. The downbeat but booming “Everytime,” a wispy ’90s R&B song reimagined for the trap era, also depicts a dysfunctional relationship that keeps sucking Grande back in. Alternately, the bright neon Imogen Heap pseudo-cover “Goodnight N Go” sure sounds like the story of early flirtations with Davidson, before things were officially over with Miller: “Oh, why’d you have to be so cute?/ It’s impossible to ignore you/ Why must you make me laugh so much? / It’s bad enough we get along so well/ Just say goodnight and go.”
So Sweetener is not a concept album so much as a portrait of the artist as a young woman, taking stock of some significant ups and downs. In keeping with this topsy-turvy phase of her life, the album flips her sound on its head. Grande has traditionally excelled by presenting a superior version of several current sounds, be it the saxy “Problem,” the electronic throb “Into You,” the reggae-inflected “Side To Side,” the brisk house track “Be Alright,” or the EDM banger “Break Free.” She’s navigated the mercenary approach to mainstream pop better than most, but Sweetener is something else. Although it offers a similarly diverse palette of sounds, it feels less like trend-hopping and more like a complicated person’s coherent self-expression.
Grande summed up the project early on as “Here is my bleeding heart, and here is a trap beat behind it.” That quote doesn’t come close to telling the full story. The brokenhearted trap-pop aesthetic definitely manifests on the sparkling Max Martin and Ilya production “Everytime.” Ilya also applies trap sounds to the Martin co-write “God Is A Woman,” Grande and Davidson’s favorite song on the album, which, despite its minor key, is very much not about heartbreak. Rather, the song conjures the elation of great sex, the kind that takes your breath away and leaves you in awe of your partner. There are traces of trap-pop elsewhere on the album, but Sweetener’s gleefully strange signature sound derives from Grande’s collaborations with Pharrell Williams.
Throughout his career, Pharrell’s beats have often been carbonated cartoons. Even on a project as nihilistic as Clipse’s Hell Hath No Fury, the music bounced and squelched with a playfulness that belied the dark subject matter, pairing death threats with what sounds like toy instruments. He brings a similar loving care to Sweetener, and with a collaborator as quirky as Grande — she of rogue donut licks and “not today satan !!!!!!” — he has found a kindred spirit.
With little more than a crisp drumbeat and some jazzy upright bass, “Blazed” introduces the Ariana-Pharrell partnership in impressive fashion. All the open space in the mix lets the vocal hooks do the heavy lifting, Grande stacking her voice into joyous harmonies and playing call-and-response with a digitized Pharrell. “R.E.M.,” built from a castoff Beyoncé demo, turns a swooning retro slow-dance á la last album’s opener “Moonlight” into an airy percussive wonderland, a warm beating heart projected inside skeletal framework. The title track is the sort of modernized throwback soul tune Meghan Trainor might release, but rendered tastefully and produced with the detail-rich minimalism of Spoon’s Kill The Moonlight. Pharrell was also involved in the fun flex “Successful,” the surprisingly unremarkable Missy Elliott collab “Borderline,” and the aforementioned opus “Get Well Soon.” But perhaps no song exemplifies the appeal of this collaboration better than advance single “The Light Is Coming,” a song on which both singer and producer push themselves into uncharted territory.
What at first sounds like a typical Pharrell collection of pops, fizzes, and hiccups eventually morphs into revved-up retro-futuristic video game music, all while a bizarre sample of a political argument echoes in the background ad infinitum. Grande takes to this racket with aplomb, toggling through voices with a gung-ho spirit seemingly influenced by Nicki Minaj, who contributes a guest verse to the front of the song. Hushed sing-song rapping, schoolyard cadences borrowed from Pharrell’s old “Hollaback Girl” playbook, sudden bursts of background harmony: You can almost see the ideas flowing out of Grande’s brain and onto the track. Taken as a whole, it’s a pop song that functions like a social media feed — an endless scroll of seemingly unrelated words, sounds, and pictures unified by narration from a living Bitmoji. To pull off a song this chaotic is impressive, much more so to build it around a lyric that seems to be about bouncing back from Manchester.
Still, if the Pharrell tracks comprise the core of Sweetener, Grande’s old pals Martin and Ilya help the album reach its euphoric peak. Lead single “No Tears Left To Cry” doesn’t sound like anything else on the album, but it was way too good to leave off the tracklist. Its brisk two-step garage production practically sounds three-dimensional, whisking Grande up and away while she belts out her best house diva exaltations. And whatever the song lacks in sonic consistency, it makes up for in thematic resonance. As a mission statement for this album, she couldn’t have done much better than “Right now I’m in a state of mind/ I wanna be in like all the time/ Ain’t got no tears left to cry/ So I’m pickin’ it up.”
Sweetener exists in that headspace. It documents a period of overcoming, of going through the wringer and emerging stronger, wiser, happier. Grande could have gone in any number of directions after what’s she’s experienced, but she chose optimism and resilience. Couched in production that peers just as excitedly over the horizon, her perspective is contagious.
Sweetener is out now on Republic. Purchase it here.