The superstar returns with a confident, accomplished, sometimes left-field collection of pop bangers, proving that she’s not shy of experimentation
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.
On Borderline, Grande’s voice floats airily over a sinister, jarring chord sequence, not unlike the kind of thing that might have provided the hook in a dark old rave track. Even a song as ostensibly frothy as Successful shifts and twists unexpectedly in a way that suggests someone behind it is conversant with the work of 70s soul’s more expansive melodists. The lyrics, meanwhile, stick fast to Grande’s aim of providing light relief – “it feels good to be so young and hot” – rather than dwelling on the horror of what happened in Manchester. The latter topic seems to be addressed only glancingly and tangentially over the course of Sweetener, in the title of No Tears Left to Cry, the refrain of The Light Is Coming (“… to give back everything the darkness stole”) and in Breathin’s depiction of the singer in the grip of a panic attack.