At the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards on Aug. 20, the celebrity roster was notably missing some of pop’s biggest divas – Lady Gaga, Beyoncé, Katy Perry et al. Alone stood Ariana Grande, performing her newest single “God is a woman” from her fourth album “Sweetener” (2018). It was a Last Supper-inspired performance, rife with gorgeous visuals and backup dancers. Now, after the album’s number one debut on the U.S. Billboard 200, Grande can fully celebrate her place at the top of pop music, even if “Sweetener” itself is not her best work.
Grande has a number of lovable, infectious pop hits — “Into You” from her third album “Dangerous Woman” (2016) immediately comes to mind — but Grande made it explicitly clear on Twitter that “Sweetener” was going in a direction she’d never explored before. In that aspect, the album does not disappoint. There is a constant flow to the body of work that feels natural. “Sweetener” dons a spacey tone, each song building with different futuristic pop beats and simplistic lyrics that make listening to the album extremely easy and light. Once “Sweetener” is dissected track-by-track, however, it dissolves quickly.
There are great jams, songs that are perfect for radio listeners and Spotify playlists. These include the album’s two singles “no tears left to cry” and “God is a woman,” which peaked at number three and eight on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, respectively. They’re both great singles, showcasing Grande’s new experimental style while not alienating her pop past.
Other jams include “breathin,” “everytime” and “borderline” (feat. Missy Elliott). Inarguably, “breathin” is “Into You” 2.0 — they are both Ilya Salmanzadeh-produced — and “God is a woman” showcases the powerful vocals that Grande is famous for. However, even some of these favorites have their problems. Elliott’s verse in “borderline” is far too short to feel like a feature, even if the rest of the song is fast R&B fun. The lyrics in “no tears left to cry” are far too simplistic even if the song is catchy, a problem that continues throughout the tracklist of “Sweetener.”
The title track “sweetener” is, at first listen, a strange-sounding Christmas carol with lyrics Grande wrote while playing with a Bop It. It’s confusing, awkward and easily the weakest song offered on the album. Two songs, “blazed” (feat. Pharrell Williams) and “the light is coming” (feat. Nicki Minaj) are easily skippable; in particular, “the light is coming” is only listenable thanks to Minaj’s verse — afterwards, it’s an easy skip largely thanks to its extremely repetitive lyrics. Thankfully, it was a promotional single, considering it peaked at only 89 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and received lukewarm reviews from some critics.
The album picks up in its final act, with an easy-listening vibe that puts the album to bed nicely. Some of the best writing on the album was found in “goodnight n go,” but “pete davidson” is a peculiar bump in the road, especially considering it is too short to be enjoyed and too misplaced to be a good interlude. A real highlight is “get well soon,” which is reminiscent of Grande’s first album “Yours Truly” (2013). However, even with its satisfying ending, “Sweetener” is still Grande’s weirdest album yet, and weird does not always mean good.
All in all, “Sweetener” is not exactly a pop album. It didn’t save pop music, but some of its songs, mostly Max Martin and Salmanzadeh-produced, are exciting new pop anthems. Ultimately, it was an experiment with inconclusive results. It’s the first time Grande has really taken the lead on writing, but some of the best songs are written by others. “Sweetener” isn’t Grande’s best work, but it’s still an enjoyable treat.