Monday, August 20, 2018

The Quirky Beauty of Ariana Grande’s Sweetener

We’ve all had a wild year, but Ariana Grande might’ve had the wildest. Since last spring, the Floridian singer with the outsize voice had her world rocked by a terror attack at her arena show in Manchester. Just two weeks later, she made a brave return to the stage for an uplifting performance at One Love Manchester, a star-studded benefit for victims of the bombing and their families. Her romance with the rapper Mac Miller fizzled out, and she later revealed that she was dating Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson, and that the new romance had quickly bloomed into an engagement. Just a few months later, the singer is back with album number four. On this month’s new Sweetener, Grande spices up the expected array of Max Martin, ILYA, and TB Hits productions that netted platinum certifications for Yours Truly, My Everything, and Dangerous Woman with a half-dozen quirky beats from Pharrell. The shift in personnel lends the new album a deeper R&B cred than the three before it, and that gives the singer ample opportunity to gush about falling in love.

Sweetener is serious enough in its commitment to break with the traditions of Ariana Grande albums to serve three big, weird Pharrell collaborations right up front. “Blazed” is textbook Skateboard P, all funky, ascending keys and busy percussion. “The Light Is Coming” features a capable Nicki Minaj guest rap and chiptune affectations, and shifting tempos reminiscent of the last N.E.R.D. album, No One Ever Really Dies. “R.E.M.” remakes a five-year-old Beyoncé demo, keeping the original song’s gorgeous doo-wop vocals but easing off of the hip-hop verses. It’s a bold sequence of songs because Ari albums have a tendency of dropping two megaton hit records by track four (and because the last person to schedule this many Pharrell beats on the same album was Justin Timberlake, who didn’t do such a great job of it). Sweetener is an exercise in world-building. It’s as interested in piecing together a breezy, gregarious mood as it is in crafting hits. There’s no EDM banger until “No Tears Left to Cry” at track ten, and it’s the only one on the album. As a lead single, it’s a delectable fakeout, a promise of dance-floor heat the record has very little intention of delivering. A few fans of Ariana Grande’s dance-pop hits are seething this week.

Anchoring this album in the jazzy chords, wonky synth tones, and offbeat samples Pharrell favors gives it a more playful and adventurous energy than the mechanized radio pop Ariana usually gets from all the in-demand pop and EDM beatmakers. The singer’s voice is a joy in this setting — in any setting. Elastic vocal runs and delightful harmonies make this batch of lyrics about the ups and downs of a whirlwind romance seem all the more lived in, and Pharrell matches the energy on cuts like the title track, which outfits Ariana’s food/sex double entendres with an ad-lib track that sounds like someone scoffing at them in real time, and “Successful,” whose drum programming includes a track of sensual, rhythmic breathing. Other collaborators match his methodology. On “God Is a Woman,” “Better Off,” and “Goodnight n Go,” ILYA, Hit-Boy, and TB Hits use kick drums as melodic instruments in the same way P’s production on the title track (and a few on the Timberlake album) does. Working with producers who have very specific signature sounds, like Pharrell and the mid-tempo disco-beat tactician Max Martin, sometimes means struggling to come out with a product greater than the sum of its highly recognizable parts; Ariana, a bubbly singer with chops beyond her years, doesn’t have this problem.

The baking metaphor powering the title track serves as a mission statement for the whole album: “When life deals us cards, makes everything taste like it is salt / Then, you come through like the sweetener you are to bring the bitter taste to a halt.” Ariana’s happy, and she intends to pass the feeling along to anyone who’ll listen. The album’s not all confections and kisses though; cohabitation and companionship are rewarding, but they also require work. Sweetener’s flow between songs about desire and songs about the attendant stresses of making a relationship work feel natural to the dizzying sensation of falling for someone and finding a routine for living that appeases both parties. The album’s not afraid to talk about working out the kinks: “Everytime” perches on the point where attraction threatens to become obsession; in “Breathin” and “Get Well Soon,” the singer coaches herself through anxiety attacks and fears about her future.

This is a confessional album when it comes to matters of the heart, but if you dive into Sweetener thinking the calm-after-the-storm conceit of “No Tears Left to Cry” suggested an album about overcoming tragedy, that’s not the spirit of the thing. We hear a lot about Ariana being in a good place and working hard to stay there, but not so much about how she got there. Sweetener offers gourmet parfait, when some listeners might have expected steak. This isn’t a knock against the quality of the music; it’s perhaps unfair to make the soul-searching honesty of albums like Bey’s Lemonade or Kesha’s Rainbow the bar for how a pop star processes trying times and approaches the business of returning to work afterward. What counts is that Ariana Grande seems at peace after what looked like a rough patch, and Sweetener lives up to its name as a heartening dip into the sights, tastes, and smells of blossoming romance.

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