Review Summary: Low-key excellence.Note: this is one of my reviews that I resurrected from a previous account back in 2018. Enjoy!
When Dangerous Woman
was released, it was becoming clear that Ariana Grande had developed a strong talent for blending old-school and new-school aesthetics. Whether it was in the form of inserting vintage R&B vocals into current dance-pop trends or adding hints of jazz to a modern hip-hop production style, Grande could juggle completely different decades of music in a single song without running too far off-course stylistically. There have been a lot of pop artists who attempt to inject a sense of nostalgia into a more updated sound, but Dangerous Woman
might be one of the best examples I’ve heard of such an approach. Now, why am I bringing this up? Because it’s pretty crucial to note that Grande has opted to firmly plant herself in a distinctly modern setting with Sweetener
. There’s some throwback stuff here and there - “Get Well Soon” comes to mind pretty quickly - but for the most part, this is her foray into the realms of trap and electropop.
The Ariana Grande we all know and love (?) is still here, but her has sound been reframed with a different approach to dynamics and a more low-key vibe. The results are much colder and the soundscapes are often much more expansive than with Grande’s previous outings, with more emphasis on the atmosphere surrounding her vocals. The best moments of Sweetener
happen when the ornate synths and subtle jazz leanings are able to simmer and shimmer over the fat trap beats, giving the listener a sense of both scale and immersion. In some cases, this approach actually makes up for the album’s shortcomings; for instance, the oddly futuristic-sounding trap-meets-soul stylings of the title track’s instrumentation completely overshadow its weak lyrical content. “Everything” follows a similar path, with chilly keyboard pops riding a smooth slow-treading bassline as Grande slathers some of her best harmonies over it all.
Speaking of Grande, you’re not going to find much in the way of belting here; she herself is also quite low-key, only selecting choice moments to fully unleash her Mariah Carey-esque highs. More importantly, however, there’s a notable breakthrough with Sweetener
: she’s finally gotten to a point at which neither enunciations or stylistic stagnation prove to be a problem. Almost every line is sung with pinpoint clarity - a great fit for such a glossily produced work - and she’s even included more tricks to her arsenal. She presents a veritable blend of crooning, belting, rapping, her best command of vibratto to date, and more elaborate harmonies than ever before; but the most jarring thing about Sweetener
(something that’s in tune with the vibe it has) is how minimalistic it is when compared to previous works. The first few songs immediately set such a tone, particularly the percussive R&B jam “Blazed,” whose catchy bassline is always a more noticeable instrument than anything in the treble end. Even the intro “Raindrops” is very spare, only consisting of an a cappella Grande performance and nothing else.
Still, I think that’s where the charm and identity of Sweetener
make themselves known. The great vocals are now complimented by an atmosphere that just sucks you in. This may not be an extreme shift for Grande, but it’s certainly not very similar to a lot of the material she put out before. It’s a testament to her growing maturity and desire to experiment that she’d be so willing to redefine her sound in different stylistic and instrumental dimensions, and while she still has a soulful and youthful flair to her voice, she’s bravely operating it in some uncharted waters. Simply put, this is both bold progression and low-key excellence.