REVIEW: Romance meets reclamation on Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’

On her fourth studio album, Ariana Grande defies both expectation and genre while staying true to her sugary pop roots. (Photo courtesy of Republic Records)

Ariana Grande’s “Sweetener” is more than just an album. At a time when pop songs have perhaps become all-too-predictable, Grande’s record challenges assumptions, reaffirming that surprises still have a place in the music industry.   

For weeks, and even months, preceding the highly anticipated release of “Sweetener” on Aug. 17, fans and critics alike wondered what the pop sensation’s fourth studio album would entail: Would “Sweetener” be a selection of summertime hits? Would it be a memoir of Grande’s whirlwind engagement to comedian Pete Davidson? Would the release of “Sweetener” be accompanied by a

 new line of sugar?

In May, “MTV Asia” released a speculative tracklist for “Sweetener,” though the actual names and number of tracks remained unknown. “MTV United Kingdom” later predicted in July that the record would include a collaboration between Grande and Beyoncé.

Nobody got it quite right. During an interview on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Grande offered only the most cryptic of hints: “[‘Sweetener’ is kind of about bringing light to a situation or to someone’s life… Sweetening the situation.”

Despite the album’s mixed reception, “Sweetener” is a body of work that defies both genre and expectations, existing in a musical category of its own.

Clocking in at 38 seconds, “raindrops (an angel cried),” the record’s opener, is the shortest track. The overture’s brevity, however, is as intentional as it is painful. Permeated by Grande’s angelic vibrato and a haunting echo, “raindrops (an angel cried)” presents a disjuncture between musical form and content, suggesting to listeners that they are being transported into Grande’s own self-crafted realm: someplace otherworldly, someplace sweet.

In another one of Grande’s collaborations with Nicki Minaj — the two had previously worked on such hits as “Side to Side” and “Bed” — it becomes apparent that cross-genre (or, more precisely, anti-genre) teamwork will be the future of music.

“the light is coming (feat. Nicki Minaj),” produced and co-written by singer-songwriter Pharrell Williams, is filled with drum pulses, synth and a femme fatale-esque bravado. It is both an upbeat club song and a piece of political commentary.

In a world where pop culture is widely segregated from what canon-conforming institutions classify as “high art,” Grande instead reinforces the idea that the political, personal and powerful can all coexist within the ubiquitous domain of pop music.

This message becomes quickly evident in “God is a woman.” As the music video suggests, “God is a woman” is a declaration of Grande’s sexual authority and, more generally, her autonomy as a woman and an individual. She boasts, “I can be all the things you told me not to be.” After all, “Sweetener” is Grande’s world, and everything in it operates on Grande’s terms.

The record’s next three tracks, consisting of “sweetener,“ “successful” and “everytime,” form their own being; they comprise a triptych which meditates on probability and luck, obsession and love and the sweetness of life itself. On “everytime,” Grande admits, “I get drunk, pretend that I’m over it / Self-destruct, show up like an idiot.” Here, Grande expresses that love can be addictive — even destructive.

In addition to love, tragedy is also undoubtedly a source of inspiration for “Sweetener.” During one of Grande’s concerts at Manchester Arena in 2017, a terrorist bombing claimed the lives of 23 fans and wounded 139 others. Since the attack, Grande has opened up in interviews and online about her struggles with PTSD and anxiety, and one of her rawest confessions to date appears on the ninth track, “breathin,” where she reveals how she frequently feels her “blood runnin’” and swears “the sky’s fallin’.” For Grande, such trauma is both visceral and tangible, and it manifests itself in many ways.

Yet, if “breathin” lays bare Grande’s many apprehensions following the Manchester tragedy, then “no tears left to cry” immediately redirects the album’s trajectory. In the chorus, Grande makes her intentions clear: “I’m pickin’ it up / pickin’ it up (oh yeah) / I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up.” While it is surely a summer anthem, “no tears left to cry” is, more importantly, a display of sheer resiliency, one that makes hope seem more of a promise than a possibility.

That “Sweetener” finishes with “get well soon” feels perfect and rather necessary. When asked by a fan on Twitter why she wrote the track, Grande replied: “i felt like i was floating for like 3 months last year & not in a nice way…i hope it comforts ppl who hear it.” In the chorus of  “get well soon,” Grande advises, “Baby you gotta take care of your body.” Indeed, for many, the protection of one’s own body is a dire task, constantly reinforced by internal and external stressors that threaten certain vulnerable bodies. Grande recognizes how high the stakes are when it comes to her physical and musical body, and, throughout “Sweetener,” she does all that is necessary to defend it.

“Sweetener” illuminates how obstacles are more than just that — they are opportunities to overcome. Entrenched in scathing criticism, unfathomable trauma and attempts to confine her work to a single genre, Grande proves with “Sweetener that creative labor, particularly music, can be reparative and revolutionary. As the name suggests, “Sweetener” directs listeners to the finer things in life, and it is alright to indulge in that sweetly, slowly.