Ariana Grande’s newest album is not what I expected of her. In my experience, her music follows a bit of a pattern. It’s catchy, upbeat pop music with good harmonies and those signature high notes that nobody can hit quite like Ariana Grande. It’s the kind of music that is easily recognizable when it plays on the radio, long before anyone announces her name. I’ve never heard a song of hers that didn’t have me dancing and singing along, or at least trying to, and I expected Sweetener to be no exception.
From the very first song, however, it was clear that this album was going to be different.
Grande opens her album with what I would call a brief celebration of her vocal talent. “Raindrops” is a short, haunting melody, featuring nothing besides Grande’s voice and a slight echo on her notes. From there, the album is set into motion, the next few songs giving the listener the catchy beats and sweet vocals that we came for, but there’s still something distinctly different from her past work. “Blazed” has a chill, almost reggae vibe; “the light is coming” is more about the beat that will stay in your head for hours; “R.E.M” is the kind of song that you want to listen to in the morning, still lying in bed while the sun streams in through the window; and then there’s “God is a woman.” It’s the song on the album that, to me, most resembles her previous hits. The lyrics are powerful, the beat makes you move to it, the instrumentals are lovely, and the harmonies reach that certain part of your soul, you know the one. “God is a woman” is everything one could want from an Ariana Grande song, celebrating all the best qualities of her music in a way that is perfectly balanced.
“Sweetener” stays true to that upbeat style, but you can already hear the soul starting to slip through. This, for me, is the turning point of the album. After this, Grande’s music begins leaning towards the more emotional, as if she herself is exploring a more raw-sounding form of expression and is taking us with her. By “breathin” we can tell that the carefree pop beats of the first half of the album are behind us, and we feel like we’re seeing a new side of the singer. It’s like she’s developing her style as we listen, and by the time “get well soon” fades out, the listener is in a different place than they were at the beginning of the album. The slow, heavy beats and soulful vocals of “better off” and “goodnight n go” are very grounding. I felt like I had sat down on heavy stone and stayed there with my eyes closed until everything felt heavy but I knew I hadn’t slept.
It is important to note the emotional progression of Sweetener, the way Grande initially gives us more or less what we expect, but then gently steers us in a whole new direction. I also think that it’s difficult, if not impossible, to separate this album from the events surrounding Mac Miller, who died not long after its release. No matter what your stance may be on Grande’s significance in these events, it gives some of the later songs on the album an even greater heaviness.
While I love several of the songs on this album individually, and while I appreciate the journey Sweetener takes the listener on as a whole, I doubt I would listen to the entire thing through again. It’s not exactly a “feel-good” album, and a bummer song doesn’t float my boat. However, that is not at all to say that you won’t catch me listening to “God is a woman” on repeat at any given time. I think Sweetener represents a risk on Grande’s part, and I respect the developments she has chosen to make. I look forward to seeing how her style continues to grow in the future.