Monday, August 20, 2018

Sweetener | Ariana Grande

"And I can be all the things you told me not to be. When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing," Ariana Grande sings on "God is a Woman," the sensual second single from her fourth studio record, Sweetener. As the front-runner in the pack of this decade's class of defining pop divas, she's right: There really isn't much Ariana Grande can't do, for better or for worse.

A few years back, she licked a doughnut and declared, "I hate America!" Niche pockets of the internet never forgot, but the incident didn't stay on her permanent record in the court of popular opinion. (Of course, in the age of Donald Trump, it's a phrase that would likely bolster her popularity rather than detract from it.) More recently, she announced an engagement to Saturday Night Live actor Pete Davidson after approximately four minutes of dating. (There's a minute-long song titled after him on this record, by the way.) Yet unlike her predecessors of decades past, none of Ariana Grande's shenanigans have pushed her reputation into free fall.

As Sweetener arrives, Grande is the same culture-dominating force that she was when we last heard from her. Her first release since a suicide bombing at the Manchester stop on her Dangerous Woman Tour took the lives of over 20 people, lead single "No Tears Left to Cry" is stained with grief but is fueled on optimism: Sleek, disorientating production dances below Grande's pleading – but not showy – vocal melody as she promises to put her grieving period to bed. And then she does just that: The bombing and its aftermath aren’t touched again, spare the record’s bookends. It opens with short vanity track "Rainbow (An Angel Cried)," and it closes with the sprawling "Get Well Soon," which nods to the May 22 bombing with a run time of five minutes and 22 seconds. Between those two tracks lie 13 others that are much more topical, lacking the emotional intelligence that Grande led us to expect in the album’s lead-up promotion.

Sweetener is split between Ariana Grande doing whatever the hell she wants and Ariana Grande sticking to what she’s always done. New collaborator Pharrell Williams handled half of the record’s production, while foolproof choices Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh took nearly the rest. (The returning Tommy Brown takes credit for a few tracks, as well, including the stellar Imogen Heap rework "Goodnight n Go.") When pitted against each other, their dueling production styles can bring out each other’s best and worst qualities: Williams’ work tries to come off as forward-thinking, but he rarely hits the sweet spot without becoming annoying. (That "You didn’t let anybody speak!" sample on "The Light is Coming" could have been so effective, had it not been looped through the entire track.) Meanwhile, Martin and Salmanzadeh’s signatures may air on the side of safety, but their final products are universally infectious. And as the record pits half of itself against the other, Grande idles: her greatest asset – her voice – is left to simmer on most tracks.

If there is, in fact, a battle between Williams and Martin and Salmanzadeh, the clear winners here are the latter duo: They deliver the album’s white-hot, surefire hits, from "No Tears" to uber-catchy "Everytime" to mega-hit-in-the-making "Breathin." And unfortunately, Williams' cuts cannot live up to those moments, no matter how faux-experimental they may be. Rhythmic tracks like "Blazed" and the title track, for example, are sucked into a mid-tempo, trap-beaten trance and are never able to escape. Not even "Get Well Soon," the album’s one song squarely rooted in Manchester, doesn’t merit its five-minute-plus run time; its lounge-lite production and inoffensive melody are not interesting enough to drag the song along for as long as it does, even considering the final 40 seconds are left silent.

But the real shame here is that the album’s narrative is weak enough to be hijacked by the tale of two production teams. Sweetener, much like Grande’s sophomore record, 2014's My Everything, was marketed as (and expected to be) the product of much deeper thought, but it fails to culminate in much more than a just-above-average pop record. (My Everything was said to reflect on the passing of Grande’s grandfather but then delivered dirty bops like "Love Me Harder" and "Hands on Me.") This record straddles the happiest and saddest moments of Grande’s young life, though grasping more strongly onto her recent engagement. Grande seems to have recovered from her unbelievable tragedy and entered a happier state, so in turn, Sweetener is an enjoyable record, no doubt. But it can sometimes feel more like careless saccharine and less like genuine granulated sugar.

Sweetener is available now via Republic Records.

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