It’s hard not to think of Sweetener as a post-Manchester album. Nowhere in the lyrics does Ariana Grande directly address the tragic bombing; yet memory of the event colors the record in subtle ways. The final track features 40 seconds of silence, extending its length to 5:22—an allusion to 5/22/17, when the bombing occurred. Beyond that, Grande’s passionately sung lines about confidence and bliss seem especially potent here. Grande has always written empowered, empowering pop songs, but in light of the circumstances, these tracks seem like comeback anthems, making themshine all the brighter. Grande’s engaged, dominating the charts, and on top of her game, and Sweetener makes sure you know it.
The intro, “raindrops (an angel cried),” almost makes you think the album will be a somber experience. A partial cover of a song by The Four Seasons, it’s slow and haunting—and completely a cappella, which gives Grande’s vocals more room to resonate. As soon as the track is over, though, Grande launches back into her most confident persona. “blazed,” which boasts a Pharrell feature, bounces along with groovy percussion.
Then it’s on to “the light is coming”—arguably the peak of the album’s ecstasy. In 2016, Grande and Nicki Minaj basked in each other’s bravado on “Side to Side” (as well as multiple other collaborations); here, they’re back together and better than ever. When Minaj raps, “Hey Ariana, come and let me give you a high five” just before Grande’s chorus, her words capture the effortless, self-assured energy between the two perfectly. The Minaj feature is only one of many reasons the song succeeds, though. The sample looped throughout the track—a clip of a man saying, “You wouldn’t let anybody speak, and instead…” during a confrontation with a senator—gives it a sense of distinctness. The percussion plays around with different pitches, establishing a buoyant vibe. On top of that, the language of the refrain—“The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole”—is familiar enough to be reassuring, but creative enough to not sound trite. Most musicians who are trying to be inspirational make promises about a distant future where things will somehow be better. Grande’s present-progressive proclamation avoids that trap by suggesting that the forces of good are already in motion—a message that you’ll believe as you nod along to the beat.
Throughout the rest of the album, Grande continues to sing with such prowess that you can almost hear the sound of her loyal Twitter stans clapping in the background of each track. “R.E.M” builds upon the demo of an unreleased Beyoncé track and spins it into an ode to dreamlike young love. “breathin,” which shot to the top of the charts on iTunes, would make the ideal soundtrack for a night drive at a moment of introspection; it glides along with the wistful ‘80s vibe of many a Weeknd song. It’s “No Tears Left to Cry,” though, that’s another of the album’s clear standouts. It’s so exuberant that it sounds like it should be played during a fun credits montage at the end of a film—you know, when the characters are shown laughing and dancing after the conflict has lost its grip on their lives. In the past, some of Grande’s songs had a certain darkness to them. “Right There” had haunting piano accents and a music video at a dimly lit costume ball; “Dangerous Woman” was the closest to ferocious rock Grande has gotten. By and large, the songs on Sweetener have a different vibe—they’re light and airy, but still powerful; the kind of music that suggests flying instead of striding.
The final two songs, “pete davidson” and “get well soon,” really put the Sweet in Sweetener. The first is exactly what it sounds like—a love letter to the SNL comedian who’s soon to be Grande’s husband. With lyrics like “Gonna be happy,” “My whole life got me ready for you,” and “I know you know that you’re my soulmate and all that,” it’s more like an affectionate text message or a heart-eyed diary entry than a Hallmark card—and that’s what makes it so endearing. “get well soon,” on the other hand, is a letter “for everybody,” as Grande sings. Grande once described it as a “musical hug” for people dealing with mental health issues, and it’s especially effective when considered in the context of Grande’s typically assertive persona. It’s moving to see that someone can sing, “I’m so successful” on one track and “I feel frozen and alone” on another—a reminder that strength and vulnerability can coexist.
All in all, Sweetener is exactly what the title proposes it to be. It doesn’t completely mask the sometimes-bitter taste of life, nor does it try to—but when you’re in the right mood, it might be just what you were looking for.