Sweetener is one of Ariana's most inconsistent albums. It feels a little all over the place and there are moments where it feels like it's shifting focus erratically. In this sense it's much like Ariana herself, which is exactly what makes Sweetener work; aside from it featuring some really good songs.
After 3 albums of glossy R&B and Pop hybrids which played by the Pop rule book down to a T, there was no real sense of who Ariana was at the end of it all. I'd listen to Yours truly, My everything and Dangerous woman and have no real sense of who Ariana was. There was disparity between the girl we would see in interviews and on our Twitter timelines and the girl who was singing these songs. Sweetener gives us Ariana as she is, as opposed the anybody pop star who happens to have a good voice. For better and for worse.
Sweetener doesn't feature the most complete songs. Ariana's voice isn't on the biggest of displays. This album doesn't feature many songs that would make for smash hit singles. But its charm actually lies in all of these things, and that at its core, there is heart. The one thing that was lacking from everything Ariana had given us before, which comparatively, wasn't really anything at all.
Ariana had a rough year in 2017. So it's no surprise that this album took a while (by today's churn-'em-out pop standards) and that she's upside down on the album cover. But even knowing how honest, forthright and open Ariana is, Sweetener still threw me. Even though it was kinda what I was wanting from Ariana all along.
Now, despite the effects of the Manchester bombing attack at her concert affecting the music across this album, it's not all doom and gloom. But there is a layer of melancholy to near enough every song on this thing. Even when Ariana is singing songs of positivity, it's offset by uncertainty, which either comes through in the tone of music or there being no resolution sought in the song itself. Some songs feels like Ariana is trying to convince herself that she's okay, that things are cool, that she's dealing with it and that everything is fine, when it isn't. "No tears left to cry" feels like a song coming from somebody who is staring at themselves in the mirror singing through tears. "The light is coming" features the chanting hook of 'The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole'; which feels like a beckoning of wanting the light, as opposed to a statement that's fact. Despite being touted as an them, "God is a woman" feels like a song from a girl who is caught in a moment of self-doubt, having to remind herself who she is and all of which she is capable of. But Ariana is also frank about how not okay she is. "Breathin" is a self-reminder that she needs to remember to live her life, no matter what happens. "Everytime" is an admission that she's shit at not knowing when it's time to walk away from a relationship that's not working for her. "Better off" is the realisation that sometimes you just need to be alone, even if you're not sure how to really go about being alone. "Successful" is a take on what it means to be successful and how it's defined by others versus how Ariana defines it herself. And "Get well soon" is an open letter on self care.
Sweetener feels like an insight into Ariana therapy session. The frankness of Ariana presenting her heart on her sleeve with this album is a contributing factor to what sells it for me. The fragility behind so many of these songs is refreshing in an industry which demands that women have to present a certain way both visual and musically, especially during the earlier years of their career. Something that Ariana adhered to for her previous 3 albums.
But over the course of recording Sweetener, Ariana also fell in love. So there are a bunch of love songs here too. They do feel a little out of place on this album, but they are a true reflection of what Ariana was going through at the time. So for that reason, it makes sense and works, if 'Art imitating life' is what we're going with here.
Straight out of the gates, Ariana was working with some of the biggest producers in the US. A bitch had Babyface write and produce her first single and then went on to release an album that featured productions from Max Martin, Zedd and Rodney Jerkins. So naturally, Sweetener features her now regular collaborator, Max Martin and also Pharrell Williams. Both do a good job of giving Ariana a decent soundscape to play in, but they fail to bring tightness to the table where production and song structures are concerned.
Pharrell Williams is an inconsistent ass producer. Flat out. Ever since doing his thing separate from Chad Hugo, his productions have been hit and miss. After his awful turn with Justin and the release of the God awful "The light is coming" I was concerned about his heavy involvement in Sweetener. But Pharrell's contributions kinda make this record. And for the Neptunes fans who just follow whatever P works on, there's a lot to like here. All of his productions feel like they pull from the classic Neptunes sound in some form, especially "Borderline", which sounds like something pulled straight out of an early 00s session for a Kelis album, which is why I fuck with it so much. I feel as though Pharrell's charm and magnetism is present across this whole album, even on the songs he didn't produce. I genuinely would have liked to have heard more from him and I hope he becomes a regular go-to guy for Ariana, just as Max Martin has.
The Max Martin posse's productions are a mixed bag. They all seem caught in this in-between of pop and Trap and never really deviate out of that. "God is a woman" is probably the best of the bunch. "No tears left to cry" could have been so much bigger than it was. "Everytime" is nice, but nothing memorable. And "Breathin" is the one song on this album that feels like an obvious single, but it feels very typical for Ariana and Max Martin by this point, as we've gotten this type of song before with the likes of "One last time".
The commonality that goes across Max and Pharrell's productions is that the songs don't feel like they have all of their nuts and bolts screwed on tight enough. "No tears left to cry" could have been a beast of a song, but its lack of build, a strong middle 8, bigger vocals from Ariana and a key change stop this from being what it could have been - a new generation's equivalent of Gloria Gaynor's "I will survive". It will still be a song that gays will be playing in 2020 and I'm sure we'll see it lip sync'd on a season of RuPauls' drag race. But it could have been groomed to be a real anthem. Pharrell's productions all feel like unfinished demos. "Blazed" is missing layers worth of instruments. The skittish Cubana vibe of the song is great and acts as a nice, if unexpected opener for the album. But the drop outs of the bass and the keys throughout the song cause it to sound like it's stopping and starting. "Blazed" needed chords, a horn section, a constant bass line, strings, steel pans and an actual throwback Neptunes bridge. It's saved entirely by its hook, which is not only catchy, but has Ariana sounding smooth as hell. "Successful" and "Get well soon" are both marred by the same shit that hurt many of Pharrell's contributions to Justin Timberfake's Man of the woods, which is that the song structures are really messy. Bridges and middle 8's are repeated unnecessarily and both songs go on for about half a minute longer than they needed to and the song structures are messy.
The consistent through line in all of this is of course Ariana's vocals. She sounds good and far more reserved than you may be used to hearing her. Rarely does she attempt belts or crazy acrobatics and it's very much welcomed. By this point everybody knows that Ariana has a good voice and that she is one of the better vocalists in Pop. But belting and throwing runs throughout songs unnecessarily is not a measure of how well you can sing. You can show restraint and do the least and end up sounding far better than somebody trying to do the most. She still has that issue with enunciation though. It's nowhere near as bad as it was, but there are definite moments here when I had to hit up Genius.com for the lyrics, because I couldn't make out what Ariana was singing. She sounds lovely, even when she mumbles. But, bitch. I need to hear dem words.
Sweetener is not an album with a slew of obvious singles on it. In fact, I don't think it's an album intended to be released as singles at all. The songs work well enough on their own when plucked out of the track list. But each song each feeling it represents a thought or a moment in the whirlwind that was / continues to be Ariana's life almost forces you to listen to the whole entire album. Something that took me a while, because I was stuck playing the shit out of the one song that everybody seems to hate. "Borderline". What can I say? I'm a suck for a fire, old skool Neptunes beat.
Sweetener is one of Ariana's best albums to date. It's not as instantly accessible as her previous albums. But it rewards listeners for playing it from start to finish and really paying attention to it. The song structures aren't perfect and some of the song writing is a bit clumsy and messy. But it'll do. Sometimes life is clumsy and messy, and in the context of the album theme it kinda works. And from a pop star whose music seemed so hell bent on presenting a form of perfection for the charts, it's nice to hear her give a more relaxed approach to her music which represents her well, without victimising her or negating the songs from her previous discography that her day one's love.
■ God is a woman
■ Borderline ★ J's fave
■ Get well soon