Ariana Grande’s much anticipated fourth album, Sweetener, was finally released two weeks ago, and it’s a far cry from her Dangerous Woman days. Sweetener was born out of a series of hard knocks for the pop singer, resulting in her most personal release to date. Grande’s powerful vocals are layered over R&B inspired bubblegum pop that often sounds reminiscent of the 2000s, with lyrics that take the listener on a journey through her struggles with anxiety all the way to finding happiness once again.
While Grande’s honest lyrical content and the clear passion that went into this project can be applauded, there are more misses than expected for a fourth album. Sweetener’s strengths are almost exclusively seen in the second half of the album, while the first half seems to consist of uninspired tracks that were scraped up from the cutting room floor and haphazardly put together to finish it off for release. For her a personal album, Sweetener has too many pedestrian songs that could have been handed off to any other pop singer with only Grande’s exceptional vocals to save them.
At times, it sounds as if Grande has regressed from the confidence and personality exuded in Dangerous Woman, leaving Sweetener with lifeless demos rescued from the generic pop of her initial hit, ‘My Everything’. The title track itself is exemplary of this, with even the uninspired repetition of the chorus being unmemorable. Instead of setting the tone for an album like a title track should, ‘Sweetener’ sounds like an extra song tacked on at the last minute.
Being both a promotional single and a collaboration with Nicki Minaj, ‘The Light is Coming’ was one of the most highly anticipated songs on the album, but came out sounding experimental yet unoriginal, ending up all over the place. Minaj’s verse felt lazily thrown in, while a repetitive sample draws attention away from Grande’s vocals, which are as far away as possible from their full potential on this song to begin with. While ‘The Light is Coming’ can at least be commended for taking risks, songs such as ‘Borderline’ and ‘Successful’ suffer from dated production that sounds far too generic to have ended up being released let alone making it to an album. Even a feature from Missy Elliot can’t save ‘Borderline’, being too short and therefore unnecessary.
By the halfway point of the album, ‘Every time’ hits the listener’s ears and leads the way to Sweetener’s saving grace. While ‘Every time’ is an upbeat love song like many Grande has released before, the contrast between the utilization of her vocal range and Max Martin’s trap-inspired production make it a standout track. Despite the mixture in influences, the song still reads as accessible, proving Grande can take big risks and make them work. From this point onward — with “Borderline” being the one exception — Grande’s full range is explored through both her vocals and experimentation with genres, giving way to the raw passion that had been expected from this release.
On ‘Breathin’’, the production is nearly hidden beneath Grande’s larger-than-life vocals as she dreamily talks herself through an anxiety attack, culminating in a roaring guitar solo out of the 80s, a feature that seems as though it should be dated but adds to the song’s memorability in 2018. Where other songs on the album are lacking in emotion, “Breathin” stands out among the rest by packing it in tight, showing a side Grande has been hiding up until now.
‘God is a Woman’ proved its popularity already upon being released as a single prior to the album’s release, but with all the assertiveness of Dangerous Woman shoved into one song, it remains a standout track. If the song in its’ entirety isn’t your style, the haunting ending of ‘God is a Woman’ will still stick with you, featuring Grande’s voice layered over itself in multiples, as though a whole choir is harmonizing together.
Sweetener has many shortcomings, with more songs worth skipping than prior releases from Ariana Grande. Despite this, the musical theater-influenced final track ‘Get Well Soon’ finishes up and leaves things on a high note, with the listener only craving more from Grande as opposed to lamenting about what the album should have been. Sweetener as a full album is reminiscent of Grande’s mission statement in creating it — the good outweighs the bad, and when it’s good, it’s exceptional.