Ariana Grande is a 25 year old singer and actress based in Florida. She began her career in the Broadway Musical 13, but found her footing on the national stage with the role of Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. On the show, she showcased her skills as a vocalist and left the role with quite a promising future ahead of her.
She made her musical debut with 2013’s Your’s Truly, which debuted at number one and went platinum. She followed this success with 2014’s My Everything, and 2016’s Dangerous Woman, both of which achieved massive success, going double and platinum respectively. Grande established herself as a modern powerhouse of female vocals. She has an especially impressive whistle register and smoky tone which compliments her penchant for working with hip-hop artists and bass-heavy beats well. I’d had a generally positive experience with all of her previous work, and I was excited to hear her latest release, Sweetener, and I was, overall, impressed with the finished product.
The album surprisingly diverse, a description not so apt for her earlier projects. Compare the tropical, steel drum-infused instrumental of “successful,” to the trap-flavored beat of “everytime,” which follows directly after. There is almost a sense of musical whiplash between them. The same is true for the gleeful, 80’s influences on “no tears left to cry,” and dreamy, but short love track, “Pete Davidson,” which even finds a home for a beautiful violin line.
Ariana is at her best on this record when she taps into her more soulful side, allowing herself to indulge with tracks like the excellent lead single, “God is a woman,” or on the criminally short opener, “raindrops,” which may be the best track on the list. One can even hear hints of this on the title track, as well as the closer, “get well soon.”
Her harmony work is also quite enjoyable. See the vocal layerings of tracks like “better off,” or “R.E.M.” Between the very impressive production work on her vocals and Grande’s impressive performances on multiple parts, these tracks are infinitely listenable, with several hidden runs and lines which may only be discovered upon repeat visits.
Ariana does, unfortunately have a tendency to get lost in some of the more demanding beats on project. “the light is coming,” for example, bury’s her easily in addition to suffering from a characteristically atrocious Nicki Minaj feature, and is, without a doubt, the low point on the album. “breathin,” suffers a similar fate, not due to an overactive instrumental, but to Ariana’s uneventful performance. This does work quite well, however, on “blazed,” which combines an infectious, tropical beat and a fantastic Pharrell Williams feature to overlook Grande’s less than stellar vocals and the song’s general lack of direction.
She even dips into an interesting mix of soul and disco with “borderline.” The track is a fun listen and, thanks to Missy Elliot’s braggadocios third verse, it stands as one of the highlights from an already packed album.
There are, of course, a few weak spots. Ariana’s attempts at rapping, mercifully rare though they are, immediately butcher any sense of enjoyment of a track, the trap drum effects are atrociously overused, and the lyricism so rarely peaks its head above the mark of uneventful as to be unworthy of mention. These are small issues, for the most part, but they’re issues which should be ironed out by an artist’s third and fourth releases.
However, I’m left with a relatively enjoyable experience. When looking at the modern landscape of female powerhouses, Grande seems to be situated at near the top of the field in terms of ability to craft an enjoyable record from start to finish. She has an entire, fully fleshed aesthetic, a smokey and enjoyable voice, and she uses her power with reserve.
Sweetener is as soulful and lively as we’ve ever heard from Ariana Grande, yet far more mature than any of her early work. She sounds as good as she ever has, and sets a high bar for pop music this year.