Ariana Grande is no stranger to flawless pop. Back when the masses were reluctant to give her the credit she was due, refusing to mention her name alongside her heavyweight contemporaries, the 25-year-old singer was churning out some of the most exciting and rich chart music in recent memory. Nobody ever framed her as an industry groundbreaker, but her last two albums, ‘My Everything’ and ‘Dangerous Woman’, proved she was creating sheer pop ecstasy – and her gold standard voice was spellbinding.
With a new chapter, though, comes change. Nearly 18 months after the bombing of her concert at Manchester Arena, an event that left Grande in a moment of professional and personal stasis, she’s returned with a stunning, sometimes left-field body of work. ‘Sweeter’, the Florida superstar’s fourth record, is dreamy, defiant and driven by hope.
There’s a telling audacity to the title track. Arriving midway through the album, ‘Sweetener’ sees Grande sing effervescently about “letting the sweetener in our hearts” to “bring that bitterness to a halt”, before she ushers in a trap breakdown thats sounds like Metro Boomin messing with The Little Mermaid soundtrack. That strange dichotomy is something that runs through her fourth LP; she flits constantly between icy, sparkling cloud-pop and hip-hop beats.
‘Better off’, a low-key ode to former old lover, sounds like its been dusted in icing sugar – and then, out of nowhere, Grande proclaims that she wants to “put these topics to bed and go fuck on the roof”. ‘God is a Woman’ and the immaculate, Max Martin-produced ‘No Tears Left To Cry’ are exemplary pop songs (the latter perhaps the best of the year), but the record’s most muscular banger comes in the form of ‘Breathin’’. The track is a gigantic, synth-fuelled behemoth that addresses the realities of rebuilding yourself in the aftermath of trauma.
There’s a lot to love here, but – as with a good old-fashioned pick and mix – there are a couple of songs on ‘Sweetener’ that you’d happily leave on the shelf. On ‘Blaze’, producer Pharrel’s production and vocals feel a bit rhythmless and overbearing, as if he’s trying to push Ariana out of her own track. Similarly, on the equally erratic ‘Borderline’, Grande’s smouldering vocal delivery is buried beneath brash, distracting sounds (Missy Elliot also comes and goes, delivering a dated verse that sounds like a feature-by-numbers).
Thankfully, Ariana’s such as star that she can turn some of the album’s most left-field cuts into effortlessly charming pop gold. A year down the line, we’ll perhaps look back at this record and appreciate its quirks and nuances a little more. Until then, Ariana’s core fanbase are bound to find an instant, sugar-rush of pleasure in this fascinating side-step from an artist who – until now – has made her name by stomping down the traditional pop path.