Like Sandra Oh in Princess Diaries, queer people have had a feeling about Friday, August 17. The Queen is coming — and by that, we mean Ariana Grande has released her fourth album, Sweetener.
The album comes two years after Grande’s last album, Dangerous Woman, and a year after the singer was at the center of international attention when her Manchester Arena concert was the target of a terrorist attack that killed 22 and wounded at least 59.
In anticipation of the album’s release, Grande released two singles, “no tears left to cry” and “God is a woman,” as well as the Nicki Minaj-assisted buzz single “the light is coming.”
But how does the rest of the album stack up? Here’s INTO’s take.
“raindrops (an angel cried)”
Though just a short intro track, “raindrops” is more significant than other intros, like the one to her second LP My Everything. The silky, soothing vocals introduce the mood of the album, which is heavy on breathy Ariana, as opposed to the force that she put into a lot of her poppier singles like “Break Free” or “The Way.” While the 30 seconds is certainly a bit schmaltzy, it doesn’t overstay its welcome.
The first of a slew of first-half tracks that are Pharrell Williams-produced, “blazed” is the perfect mix of breezy and toe-tapping to slide you into the album. While much of Sweetener is breezy, that shouldn’t alarm anyone that she’s making an adult contemporary Lite FM album. Williams’ production is bouncy and bubbly, but not imposing. “blazed” sounds like a song that would get everyone on the dance floor at a wedding — and that’s a compliment!
“the light is coming”
The Nicki Minaj-featuring single didn’t get as much early love as “God is a woman” or “no tears left to cry,” but it sounds much better in the context of the Williams-produced album section. While the rest of Williams’ tracks are a little sonically similar and easy, “light” is a little more frantic and energized. Compared to some of Grande’s earlier singles like “Everyday” or “Into You,” calling “the light is coming” energized might sound like a joke, but this is a welcome upbeat track on what is largely a mid-tempo album.
Much of Sweetener sounds “dream like” — .:extreme Mo’Nique voice:. “The behavior you exhibited was dream LIKE” — and nowhere is this more true than on “R.E.M.,” which is literally about dreaming! Talk about form matching content. Grande’s vocals on “R.E.M.” sound so silky I want to wear them to bed.
“God is a woman”
You’ve already heard “woman” and probably have some thoughts about it and probably snapped in delight as Grande fingered a hurricane in the music video. While it was a great single, it does feel like a bit of a slog compared to what surrounds it. But this is Grande vocals at their best.
The album’s title track is, just as the title suggests, sweet without being saccharine. One of the best things about “sweetener” is that it shows flashes of the artist that emerged on Yours Truly, Grande’s first full-length LP. You can’t listen to “sweetener” without thinking about Grande’s evolution since “Piano,” and “Daydreamin’.” In a lot of ways, Grande is still daydreaming, but this time it’s from the vantage point of womanhood instead of adolescence.
It’s rare that we get to see Grande go full braggadocio. And though on first read, it sounds like bravado might not be a dress that would slink easily onto Grande, “successful” is one of the album’s great surprises. It’s something that you can bop to down the street a la Jennifer Lopez’s “Feelin’ So Good.” You can’t help but smile for Grande when hearing the track, but you also can’t help but also feel successful. The track isn’t the last Williams-produced one on the album, but it is the end of the album’s Williams-heavy first half, and it’s a great note to end on.
The transition from “successful” to “everytime” is one of the more dramatic on the album, but it’s also a welcome one. At this moment, the album feels like it goes into a new movement and there are few couplets as good as “you get high and call on the regular/ I get weak and fall like a teenager.”
Britney Spears’ “Breathe on Me” is shook. This might be one of the best tracks about breath ever recorded! OK, mostly kidding. This mid-tempo ode to self care is another one that, like “successful” feels like an intravenous injection of positivity, though a bit more melancholy. This will be on heavy rotation on my anxiety playlist.
“no tears left to cry”
You’ve heard it, you’ve loved it, you’ve lived it, you’ve picked it up. (Still a bop.)
Something about “borderline” is so gloriously retro chic that you can’t help but fall for it. It’s also one of the tracks that best makes use of Grande’s vocals as its own background instrument. Like “sweetener,” “borderline” also feels like a Yours Truly cut, albeit from a more grown-up Grande. Missy Elliott’s verse is good, not great — it’s too damn short — but it’s great to hear her on a track again, period.
This far into Sweetener, “better off” sounds like a surprise, mostly because it’s both where the album slows down for a minute but also because it’s the track that most directly seems addressed toward her ex, Mac Miller. And hey, at one point, she talks about fucking on a roof, which is cool. This is definitely the emotional peak of the album and it’s a welcome one.
“goodnight n go”
Those who love Imogen Heap’s “Goodnight and Go” will love this musical ode to Heap’s song, which both borrows from and improvises on the original. (When you get to the song and hear it, you’ll notice how much influence Heap probably had on this album.) Though it’s probably unfair to compare the two, the sampling invites invitation and while I like Grande’s version, I kinda prefer the original?
No modern love story has captured the national imagination more than the budding romance-slash-engagement of Grande and Saturday Night Live castmember Pete Davidson. Not to make a second Jennifer Lopez comparison, but this reminds me of Lopez’s “Dear Ben,” except this isn’t a whole song and is much cuter!
“get well soon”
Another ode to self care, “get well soon” has a lot riding on it as a closing track — and it rises to the occasion. It captures the mood of the album and also leaves the listener with the guarantee that, among all the chaos her life, she’s taking care of herself. At the end of the track, and of the album, Grande includes 40 seconds of silence as a tribute to the victims of the Manchester Arena attack. All together, with the 40 seconds, the track clocks in at 5:22 long, a nod to the date of the attack — 5/22.
In a lot of ways, Sweetener feels like a spiritual successor to Yours Truly rather than a follow-up to Dangerous Woman. But that also makes Grande’s discography feel so much more cohesive. Truly was simple and beautiful. My Everything and Dangerous Woman were focused on delivering bops to pop radio. Like Truly, Sweetener puts Grande front and center and feels more deeply personal than anything the singer has put out before. Sweetener is a cohesive, minimalist, sonic surprise — but it’s also a confident entry in Grande’s discography that solidly moves her from pop princess to pop dauphine.