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Album Review: Ariana Grande - Sweetener

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The mighty ponytail-wielding diva of pop, Ariana Grande, has officially released her saccharine fourth album Sweetener, reaching #1 hit on iTunes in 94 countries and counting, not even a full day after its release.

Production for Sweetener began immediately after the release of her third album Dangerous Woman. It’s predominantly a pop, R&B, and trap record featuring amongst many others, producer Pharrell Williams who worked on almost half of the record.

When you buy/stream/hold the physical copy close to your chest and kiss it, the first thing you’ll notice is that we finally have an artwork that’s in colour. It’s also upside down, a decision that was apparently made as a joke initially, when her best friend Aaron Simon Gross suggested the cover art would look good even upside down. The invertedness of the cover art, music video of its first single 'no tears left to cry', as well as the stylisation of the album title on social media, all derives from her emotional state in the past few years as her life was turned sideways.

Being the first full album to follow the events of the Manchester attack of May last year, this was a highly anticipated record as the world waited to hear her journey of recovery through her new music. In an interview for Beats Radio 1 following the release of Sweetener, Ariana found herself in tears when discussing what the songs represent for her and also spoke out about the struggles with mental health that she experienced during the last few years: “People don't pay enough mind to it because we have things to do and places to be and pressure to fit in and whatever bullshit you're trying to put on. People don't pay attention to what's happening inside”.

She explained that making Sweetener, was her way of giving people “ a hug musically” and make them happy through all the things they’re going through. “It’s not just about [Manchester]”, she added, “It’s about personal demons and tragedies as well.”

Sweetener starts off with 'raindrops (an angel cried)', an acapella prelude reminiscent of 'Moonlight'. It’s quietly powerful with its haunting and mournful poetry “When raindrops fell down from the sky / The day you left me an angel cried”. After stunning us with her echoing vocals, she picks up the mood and starts the album off with the first track featuring Pharrell Williams. 'blaze' is a tropical R&B track, somewhat forgettable once you get to the record’s high points but enjoyable nonetheless.

'the light is coming' features Nicki Minaj rapping alongside Ariana’s verses, with a continuous hook tying up overarching themes neatly in a sexy repetitive beat. Here, she trades her usual and expected pop hook for ticking tom drums - a new sound that’s addictively catchy and lingers until the last note. 'R.E.M.' picks up where 'the light is coming' leaves off, and we are introduced to one of the first big new bops. Originally planned to be part of an unreleased Beyoncé song, 'R.E.M' finds Ariana in a beautifully layered pop R&B dream “you’re such a dream to me”. Beyoncé stamps her signature style on the track, Ariana even seems to channel her tone at times.

Whether you were ready for it or not, 'God is a woman' descends from the heavens to give the gays the club anthem they hope and prayed for. The classic Ariana pop hook, bridge, and verses are all back in their most refined and ultimate versions to date. She rides the vocals as the song culminates into a female-backed gospel chorus. This is Ariana at her pop-best.

'Sweetener' gives you a chance to breathe and recollect yourself after that spiritual ride. Yes, it does sound like Pharrell is playing with a bop-it while he woo’s and sheesh’s in the background, but don’t let sweetener’s words get lost; “When life deals us cards / Make everything taste like it is salt / Then you come like the sweetener you are to bring the bitter taste to a halt”. Unlike the light is coming, Ariana allows herself to belt and do her magical runs at the chorus while the instrumental piano melody sets up this happy mood.

'no tears left to cry' picks you up off the floor with shining, shimmering synth glory. Just like 'God is a woman', it shines with a trancing acoustic vocal and explodes in a fiery pop beat and heavily synth-led chorus. There’s no more time to waste on feeling negative, because “we out here vibin’”. In the short but sweet 'pete davidson', we get to see what exactly has made this girl so completely enamoured with the guy. Ariana's lyricism paints the perfect picture of her man, layered with strings and fading vocals.

Finally, this sweet escape gets its send-off with 'get well soon'. Similarly to 'breathin' this is an R&B soul song about healing and trying to stay grounded when you feel as though your body is floating away. If Sweetener is her journey of recovery, 'get well soon' is the get well card she’s sending out to herself and others, including the families and friends of the victims of Manchester. It’s no coincidence the song includes 40 seconds of silence and clocks 5:22 minutes.

Let’s be honest, Ariana's records are always guaranteed to sell, and her vocal talent and sheer force of will could not have been better exemplified than in her last record, Dangerous Woman, which many dubbed her “coming of age” work. That being said, Sweetener feels much more special, with Ariana herself commenting it's much more "her". 

Sweetener is (both figuratively and literally) about taking away the bitterness of life and replacing it with something good; it reminds us of the strength in all of us and is a promise of better things to come.

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