The perfect example to demonstrate how mainstream pop acts can flaunt their strengths in a way that’s straightforward and engaging is Ariana Grande’s new project Sweetener. If there’s anything the record establishes for certain, it’s the power of simplicity and raw talent. Through years of acting, releasing chart-topping singles like “Into You,” “One Last Time,” “Love Me Harder,” and three other full-length LPs, she’s finally hit the nail on the head to what can effectively compliment her style. An artist with a compelling personality like hers doesn’t necessarily need flashy, experimental production to keep listeners engaged. It’s technical proficiency and personable songwriting that makes Sweetener stand out as a more mature follow-up to her 2016 project Dangerous Woman.
And Ariana’s not just sticking to what she’s already had a foot in for so many years. The record is a vibrant fusion of contemporary r&b and dance pop with a simple mission: showing how far the 25-year old singer has come since the beginning of her career. It incorporates influences from the wave of old-school pop-soul that artists like The Supremes & The Miracles popularized back in the 1960s, but with a clear modern twist. The album boasts dynamic vocal performances layered over polished, crystal-clean production quality. Its drum choices tastefully call to trap; the 808 snares are brisk and hasty, blanketing the synth textures effectively. It’s elegant and sophisticated, and needs not beg for your attention: it’s naturally inviting.
The confidence that the album radiates is infectious, especially where there are clear feminist implications. The impressive range and crisp, calculated tone of Ariana’s vocals make her bold statements celebrating her place as an accomplished figure in the music scene feel that much more powerful. At this point, she’s broken through the societal disadvantages she’s faced as a woman in the industry, which is why a track like “Successful” works; she has the absolute right to say something like “it feels so good to be this young & have this fun and be successful.” She shuts down anyone who has told her that she can’t be who she sets out to be on "God is a Woman”; wholeheartedly embracing who you are and believing in your potential has never been so catchy. Coming from a self-assured woman who’s climbed her way to the top through years of hard work, it feels genuinely convincing.
Sweetener’s sound palette is diverse and full of subtle, polished grooves; it was clear we were in for something promising when “No Tears Left to Cry” was released as a single. Its sparkling production has an arrangement of synth chords that radiate brightly on top of an already irresistible hook. Not to mention Pharrell Williams has a significant hand on the production of multiple tracks; his bombastic, playful flavor coincides perfectly with them. His contribution to the funky groove of “Blazed” spices it up with an infectious drum pattern and falsetto. Additionally, “The Light is Coming” uses heavy vocal sampling and manipulation with a bouncy hi-hat and snare pattern and a rigid bassline. It’s glitchy and infectious, a clear highlight for the record. The sweet, sensual “R.E.M” follows, which elegantly enthuses over here budding relationship with Pete Davidson over a wall of velvety synthesizers.
This newfound love seems to be a major point of inspiration. “Pete Davidson” shows this unadulterated passion, a track directly addressed to him without any attempt to hide or water it down. She rehashes why his place in her life is the right path for her in “Better Off,” in which she acknowledges the questionable aspects of her last relationship that led to its end. These personal touches are genuinely honest, and their concise lengths make them effective. A brief break to hear about what’s going on in the artist’s life feels justified by the time we’re done basking in richly produced odysseys like “The Light is Coming” or “No Tears Left To Cry.”
Heaps of mainstream pop LPs in today’s music scene leave their creative splurges to the project’s radio-friendly hits and slack on the rest. It’s a fatal flaw, mainly because it can lead irritated music listeners to stereotype and avoid the entire genre. Of course, why pay attention to a dry, run of the mill pop album that thrives exclusively off of the success of its singles? But Sweetener refuses to get lazy in the entirety of its runtime, which is what makes it one of 2018’s most important pop records. Its personal, empowering and playful moments show obvious care and meticulous attention to the finer details. It’s a refined, classy follow-up to Dangerous Woman that proves the young artist is on a clear uphill trajectory. She’s becoming one of pop’s most consistently appealing acts with every new album, and that is certainly worth celebrating.