Ariana Grande is no stranger to the music industry.
With 2014’s My Everything, Grande proved that despite her Nickelodeon beginnings, she wasn’t just a Radio Disney act. The album produced four Top 10 hits, easily debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and was favorably received by critics and pop fans alike. Even those most supportive of Grande, however, posed the question- who is Ariana Grande?
2016’s Dangerous Woman didn’t do much to answer this question. Veiled by a bad-girl persona and a set of bunny ears, Grande’s third effort performed well, received above average reviews and helped Grande further establish her role in the pop genre. But still, Grande’s voice (while immaculate) seemed to be lost.
After the tragic bombing of the Manchester stop of her “Dangerous Woman Tour” back in May, Grande took time away from the spotlight to emotionally recover from the incident; during this time, not much was heard from her or her team.
When her lead single, “no tears left to cry” was announced, the general expectation seemed to be an emotional ballad, perhaps one dedicated to the lives lost in Manchester or highlighting Grande’s recovery period. The final product, however, was almost the complete opposite; an upbeat, feel-good club track about “picking it up” then “turning it up.”
The track is a testament to how Grande choose to handle grief through her music—act as the light amongst the darkness. The final product, Sweetener, is a 15-track glimpse into Grande’s life, from how she has dealt with grief, anxiety and extremely public breakups to how she’s found herself in a place of love, light and success.
Following the footsteps of Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé and Camila Cabello (in just this past year), Grande called on Pharrell Williams to produce seven of the albums tracks. The “Happy” singer and industry giant is featured on “blazed,” which is unlike anything else in Grande’s previous catalog and lays the groundwork for the rest of the record. Two more of Williams’ tracks follow, “the light is coming” featuring Grande’s “big sister” and self-proclaimed “Queen” Nicki Minaj, and “R.E.M.” The former is an experimental track, with Williams’ unique production featured in such an abrupt way that it takes more than a few listens to even begin to understand what’s going on, and includes one of Minaj’s most impressive verses in a while. “R.E.M,” which had a demo recorded by Beyoncé surface earlier this year, still stands out as produced-by-Williams, but in a more chilled-out, lullaby way, with Grande singing (and even rapping, sort of) over a beat that is oddly reminiscent of Grande’s 2015 Christmas EP, Christmas and Chill.
On “successful,” Grande takes a moment to boast, literally and unashamedly. “It feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful,” she sings, “I’m so successful.” On “God is a woman,” the albums second official single, Grande brags again, this time about her abilities in bed that will, quote on quote, make men believe God is a woman. And that she is!
Aside from Williams, Grande also teamed up with longtime collaborator and pop legend Max Martin. While the album remains fairly cohesive throughout, the Martin tracks are clearly discernable from those handled by Williams. “everytime” brings a 90’s diva flair to the album and the comparisons to Mariah Carey, though silenced for a period of time, must respectfully resurface, as Grande sells the mellow chorus in a way no one since Carey has been able to.
Aside from themes like love, sex and success, Sweetener also delves into the less glamorous parts of Grande’s life. In an interview with Elle earlier this year, Grande explained her heightened struggles with anxiety following the Manchester tragedy. “When I got home from tour, I had really weird dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe… I’ve always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before,” she explained, “There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down.”
On “breathin,” a standout track, Grande pens some simple, yet necessary advice to herself. “Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’” she tells herself (and anyone else who needs to hear it) over a hard drum beat and electric guitar.
“get well soon,” the albums closer, delivers a similar message. Unbeknownst at the time, the song was first teased in an Instagram post on December 31 and is fairly simple in terms of production when compared to the rest of the record. The track, which the discussion of brought Grande to tears during an interview with Beats 1 Radio, is about “personal demons, and anxiety, and more intimate tragedies,” according to Grande, and includes 40 seconds of silence at its close to bring the running time to 5 minutes and 22 seconds in honor of the Manchester bombing on May 22, 2017. “I just wanted to give people a hug, musically” Grande said in the aforementioned interview, and that is exactly what “get well soon” accomplishes, in a way that is rarely achieved in modern music.
After a tumultuous year, Ariana Grande has not only made her way out of the darkness that surrounded her for so long, but managed to find her voice along the way. Sweetener is her most polished, cohesive and well received effort to date, and with it undoubtedly being one of the best pop releases of the year so far, has established Grande’s name as a big league performer in the music industry.