Review: “Sweetener” by Ariana Grande

Updated: Jan 21, 2019

Author: Sam Seliger

At first glance, pairing Ariana Grande with Pharrell Williams seems like a good idea. With his hit single “Happy,” the Robin Thicke collaboration “Blurred Lines,” and going back further to his work as part of the production team The Neptunes, Williams has developed a reputation for creating thoroughly likeable pop music laced with enough hooks to keep it on the radio for months, a style which he could easily tailor to a sultry pop singer like Grande. But take a deeper look into William’s discography (particularly his group NERD), and one will find regular excursions into a highly experimental form of synth-funk that leans heavily on repetition and bizzare vocal samples.

In producing most of Ariana Grande’s fourth album, “Sweetener,” Williams chose the latter style, and it has wonderful results. On the seven tracks he produces, Williams allows Grande to work over new production styles and experiment with cadences and vibes she has never used before. Instead of soft, sensual crooning, Grande is shooting up to the top of her range in luscious melodies that build up to chanted choruses. This is best exemplified on the title track, where Grande sings a particularly divine hook that culminates into a chorus of “get it, get it, get it, get it, hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it, flip it, flip it, flip it you make me say oh, oh” on top of a bouncy electro-funk punctuated by “sheesh” chants.

Grande is at her most sultry on the Missy Elliott collaboration “borderline,” where her simple yet seductive melodies provide an excellent contrast to Williams’s slightly cluttered, percussion-heavy beat. This is most clear when Grande sings “You know I'm the wifey type, babe / You know I be one of a kind, oh whoa / Once you tastin’ my ice cream, I bet you won't ever leave” in the pre-chorus, leading up to a short-but-sweet rapped verse from Elliott.

Most of Williams’s work comes on the first half of the album, as he produces five of the album’s first seven tracks . On the tracks not produced by Williams, Grande stays more true to her old sound, and at times she sounds more confident and positive than before, a theme further accentuated by her use of all lowercase letters in the song titles, possibly representing her increased artistic freedom.. This change is especially true on “God is a woman,” a breathtaking anthem of female sexual freedom and honoring “appreciative” partners, which finds Grande crooning and belting over a booming trap beat and even vocalizing on top of a choir of her own voice.

Grande takes time to say goodbye to her old relationship with rapper Mac Miller on “better off,” a lowkey track that comes out sounding like a bittersweet end to a happy relationship (although Grande has alleged otherwise). Aside from that, much of the album is dedicated to Grande’s new relationship, most clearly on “pete davidson” (the name of her fiancé): a short and simple piece of trap-pop that still sounds authentic and passionate.

Williams comes back for the closing track “get well soon” to provide a sparse beat of simply piano, bass and 808, giving Grande the opportunity to take up space on her own. Grande takes advantage of the opportunity, as she confidently comforts herself after a panic attack. The song closes with an extended silence, making its final length 5:22, the date of the bombing at her 2017 Manchester concert that left 22 dead, as if to dedicate the song to those affected by the attack.

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