Ariana Grande found the light. A year after a terror attack at her Manchester, England, concert left 22 fans dead and hundreds more injured, the pop star has found some sweetness in her life with her highly anticipated fourth album.
Sweetener (out now) opens with “Raindrops (An Angel Cried),” a 37-second a cappella cover of The Four Seasons’ early ‘60s cut. It is a simple yet gorgeous introduction, and its lyrics (“The day you left me, an angel cried”) are a clear nod to those who lost their lives in the senseless May 2017 tragedy.
From there, Grande, 25, transitions into “Blazed,” one of seven songs produced by Pharrell Williams. It is a more upbeat number with tropical elements and plenty of references to her whirlwind engagement to Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. “Once I have you, I will never let you go,” she teases over a looped drum beat.
Love is a common theme throughout the 15-track record. The Grammy nominee shares her journey to happiness on the ethereal “R.E.M” and boasts on the Missy Elliott collaboration “Borderline” that she is the “wifey type.” There is even a dreamy interlude named after her fiancé, on which she intones, “I know you know that you’re my soulmate and all that.”
But Grande’s story is, at times, overshadowed by Williams’ kooky production. Case in point: “The Light Is Coming,” a spastic and just downright odd single that kicks off with a verse from Grande’s close friend and frequent collaborator Nicki Minaj. Between punchlines, the rapper plays around with the title of the album (“Sips tea, and it’s unsweet / Respect bad gyal when mi done speak”). Minaj’s cleverness helps elevate the song, but there is one glaring turnoff: a repetitive and peculiar vocal sample borrowed from a viral clip of a man screaming at the top of his lungs during a 2009 Pennsylvania town hall meeting. Luckily, it is the weirdest of Williams’ work here.
Enter Max Martin and Ilya, the masterminds behind the album’s four immediate standouts, two being the previously released singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God Is a Woman.” The former is a cathartic house-inflected anthem, while the latter finds Grande imitating Migos’ triplet flow and harmonizing over her own sultry vocals. Another memorable tune is “Everytime,” on which the singer effortlessly showcases her impressive upper range. But it’s “Breathin” that takes the cake. The electronic track starts off a bit subdued then continues to build and build and build until a euphoric chorus kicks in. This one is bound to be a radio hit.
One thing Sweetener lacks, though, is a massive, club-ready pop banger. While songs like “No Tears Left to Cry” and “Breathin” are catchy, they yearn for immaculate, transcendent beats that could rival Grande’s 2016 magnum opus “Into You.”
There are a few venti-sized missteps this time around (here’s looking at you, Williams), but those are easily forgiven. After all, the music speaks for itself — and even though Grande is still refining her craft, it’s evident that she is in a great place in her life. And really, that’s all that matters, right?
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