As pop fans, we love it when music moves us, we love it how it touches us. In 2018, it just doesn’t seem like that’s any artist’s goal anymore. The definition of a pop star or diva has definitely become very loosely thrown nowadays. Who’s an artist that’s debuted in recent years that could even be considered a proper pop star? We have white sadboys who are automatically given artistic cred for knowing how to play the guitar, and pretty girls who sleepwalk through performances.
Enter Ariana Grande and Sweetener, her 2018 opus. Kicking off with a bang bang into the room this era with “no tears left to cry,” it was evident while her peers settle for moderate success with half-assed efforts, the songstress had no intentions of lowering the bar for herself. While the lead single extended her record of being the only artist in Billboard history to debut in the top ten with all her lead singles, “no tears left to cry” furthers the Grande narrative as we know it. Over elements of disco and house and trap, the track is the first lead of hers to really sound like she’s completely in her element. It’s more “hi, I’m Ariana Grande and this is my music” and less “I’m Ariana Grande and I’m here to prove that I can make mature R&B music, effervescent pop bangers, and sexy bedroom jams.” The fact that it’s one of her best singles to date is proof in the sweetened pudding, and the rest of the project follows as it paints a picture of a proper pop star being realized.
Kicking off with a bang bang into the room this era with “no tears left to cry,” it was evident while her peers settle for moderate success with half-assed efforts, the songstress had no intentions of lowering the bar for herself.
Oh, and remember when she was hoeing around on Dangerous Woman? Yeah, girl is still horny and still 100% in control of her sexuality. The trap-pop/reggae-tinged second single “God is a woman” is obviously no exception as it aligns feminine energy with godliness, all packed in a sultry and steamy banger. Even on the breezy Pharrell-produced “successful,” which celebrates success and confidence among women, she still teases “let me put my hands over your eyes” as background vocals coo “it’s a surprise, surprise.” It’s the kind of breezy, bouncy track that recalls “Bad Liar” by Selena Gomez (one of the better pop singles in past years) without using it as a full reference point.
The chill, reserved vibe is definitely the type of energy that runs through most of Sweetener, which has been the chagrin of many fans who may have been expecting the same level of high-octane pop that’s been present throughout most of Ariana’s career. Chill, however, doesn’t have to mean lazy or careless – although the one downfall of these tracks is that sometimes they nearly fall into that realm, as with “borderline” and “blazed,” where even flashy featured names like Pharrell and Missy Elliott sound like they couldn’t be bothered to sit up to record. Other times, such as with title track, the songs bring a lot more to the table. “sweetener,” which many suspected may have been a tender ballad in line with “Moonlight,” immediately switches up with an already-memified, Bop It-sampling chorus. While the tracks aren’t dancefloor filers (wait for that remix though), they keep an audience engaged. Backing vocals exclaiming “sheesh” and “ayy” here and there give the tracks a nearly conversational vibe. “the light is coming” is another Pharrell track that shows that restraint can make gold and that sometimes bursting at the seams is better than punching a listener in the face.
But we’ve always known Miss Grande can serve bops, haven’t we? Of course we have. However, like any diva, the most arresting moments on the album are when she’s feeling all her emotions at the forefront. “raindrops (an angel cried)” is short album intro in the form of an acapella cover of the Four Seasons hit, and might be one of the most immediately arresting moments on the album in just 38 sweet seconds. Savor it, it’s one of the few times you’ll get your standard soaring ballad moment. You’re gonna hear more in the vein of “pete davidson,” putting the young artist’s penchant for stacked vocals and harmonies on full display.
“everytime” feels like a hangover of Dangerous Woman’s “Bad Decisions,” lamenting over someone Ari keeps going back to. A lesson in classic pop earworm couplets “you get high and call on the regular / I get weak and fall like a teenager.” Whereas other times she finds herself the opposite direction of sentimental. Matching the lyrical themes, the track “better off” is a gorgeous musical moment with production making Grande sound like a lonely astronaut drifting in space. Singing about keeping lovers at a safe emotional distance: “let’s put them topics to bed and go fuck on the roof, just to say we did it” is definitely a moment fans will be talking about. Several titles like these also show off the songstress’ gorgeous warm lower register, proving time again that she can give more than a great roaring belter.
The singer describes the title of her fourth full-length Sweetener to reference “somebody else who brings light to your life, or sweetening the situation.” Self-aware queen. Jokes aside, this obviously references the tragedy her and her fans faced this past year when the Manchester date of her Dangerous Woman Tour was the site of a deadly terror attack. Avoiding that subject in her music and public persona would’ve been scrutinized by the public, even though we shouldn’t have to depend on trauma survivors addressing their experiences, and with the lead single and other entries on the album she finds an honest ground far away from exploitation. “no tears left to cry” was no exception, and “get well soon” delivers an important message on taking care of ones mental health while recalling the doo-wop filled fan favorite “Honeymoon Avenue.”
“breathing” has become quite a new fan favorite and album centerpiece as well, the Cashmere Cat-written number takes lyrics about anxiety and not able to find peace and leads it into a chorus with a pulsing dance track with a simple message: “just keep breathin, and breathin, and breathin.”
Sweetener is quite literally the album we needed in 2018. Anthems calling for fans to take care of their mental health, feminist bops, songs about getting dicked down, and more. It’s no perfect album by far, but in 2018 been one of the few proper pop albums to serve exciting and genuinely touching moments. She’s fulfilled her promise of being a sweetener for her fans and listeners, and then some.