Roundtable: Ariana Grande – Sweetener

by Sarah Morrish, Ellie Turner

From "undoubtedly my favourite release of 2018 so far" to "sporadically messy and clumsy" - PearShaped's President and Treasurer present their different takes on the pop superstar's latest release.

Editor’s Note: for the purposes of clarity, song titles have been capitalized throughout the article. Ariana’s original song titles can be found here.

 

Sarah Morrish:

Over fourteen-thousand individuals attended a concert at Manchester Arena on May 22nd 2017. Tragically, twenty-three never made it home. It was not the bomber that had initially tied these fourteen-thousand together – though his actions will have undoubtedly left a harrowing impression – but Ariana Grande. It was her concert they had come to see. But music has the power to unite. Grande’s concert would have united that fourteen-thousand regardless, with or without the devastation that occurred directly afterward. However, tragic unity is a perpetual unity. It far exceeds the blissful, yet momentary, unity those concertgoers would have anticipated – the unity that possesses you as you belt your idol’s anthems under one roof. As for Ariana Grande, she was likewise feeling “upside down,” plagued by the notion that she was the original common ground these individuals had, the pulling force that brought them to Manchester Arena in the first place.

No Tears Left to Cry was released eleven months after the terror attack, as the first single from Sweetener. As is inferable from the title, the track is defiant in message. However, the instrumental is off-kilter and awkward in patches – it attempts to fuse a garage beat with dance-pop squalls. It is not a strong lead single and encapsulates everything that Sweetener itself comes to represent, an artist in fluctuation. This becomes apparent in tracks such as Goodnight N Go and Better Off, in which Grande’s dizzying vocals remain the only real consistency amid pleasant, but forgettable, arrangements. These tracks seem to be a far cry from Breathin and Get Well Soon which expertly detail Grande’s struggles with tastefulness and spiralling synth-fuelled composition. Despite their subject matter, Breathin and Get Well Soon embody Sweetener’s message beyond its occasional clumsiness and inconsistency – one of uplifting hope, affirmation, and perseverance.

Get Well Soon stands out beyond its lyrical content and synths, though – a series of multi-tracked harmonies, piano lines and finger snaps (courtesy of Pharrell Williams) allow for equilibrium between Grande’s potent vocals and the sparse, modern production. Williams is an incredibly esteemed producer for good reason, but his arrangement sometimes straddles the line between dated and distinctive. While later track Blazed is catchy, the synergy is not all there, with the song appearing to be a vocally overbearing power struggle between the two. Later track R.E.M takes this a step further, running the risk of sounding like a Williams cover song as opposed to a Grande original.

This conflict comes to a head in the Williams-produced Borderline, which seems to combine every previous flaw into one giant mess. Grande’s vocals, while emanating a Janet Jackson-esque ambiance, are buried under busy instrumentals, while Missy Elliott’s feature is stagnant, fleeting and utterly underwhelming in cadence and in flow.

Despite this, Williams is also responsible for many of the album’s highlights. The title track is perhaps the best example of this, where Williams ensures commercial success with a cascading melody, before throwing a curveball in the form of an infectiously robotic post-chorus. The Light Is Coming takes this further, including a subversive, almost carnivalesque playground chant that would sit comfortably on Gwen Stefani’s debut. Much like Borderline, it is busy and brash in arrangement, but does so in a far more seamless manner, merging jittery overtones with a clear positive focus – “the light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.”

Indeed, Sweetener does what it says on the tin. It attempts to spin a negative situation, such as the toxic relationship described in Everytime, into a learning experience. It attempts to weave a new relationship, as detailed in the bite-sized homage Pete Davidson, in a tactful light. It is sporadically messy and clumsy – no thanks to Williams – and Grande constantly seems to take two steps forward and one step back. But, for all its fluctuations and inconsistencies, Sweetener is brimming with assertive anthems and raw strength. Fourteen-thousand individuals attended a concert at Manchester Arena on May 22nd 2017. If Sweetener is anything to go by, I am sure they will not be disappointed.

Individual Rating: 3/5

Picks: Sweetener, Successful, The Light Is Coming

 

Ellie Turner:

From the beginning vocals on opening track Raindrops (An Angel Cried), you can tell that Sweetener is going to be something special. This opening song wouldn’t be out of place as the middle track on an album, as one which would stand out as the show-off track on any other artists’ album. However, Grande’s impressive catalogue means that a song this incredible can be positioned anywhere on an album; song after song proves that she deserves her position as the 21st Century Queen of Pop. Raindrops (An Angel Cried) beautifully showcases the sheer range of Grande’s breathtaking vocals – and this is only 38 seconds into the album.

Everyone always places these insane vocals at the centre of their discussion of Grande – understandably, given how impressive they really are. My favourite thing about Grande, however, is that she shows that even the Queen of Pop, surely a favourite amongst parents due to her initially seemingly squeaky clean image, has a sexier side to her. She isn’t afraid to break down stereotypes or be put into a “sweet pop princess box”, singing freely about sexual subjects instead.

Better Off, a personal favourite track on the album, sees Grande honestly singing about the difficulty of letting go of someone you know you are better off without. Amidst the painfully relatable and brutally honest lyrics comes the line “Let’s put those topics to bed and go fuck on the roof”. It’s refreshing to hear a woman in pop sing directly about sex in this honest and undecorated manner, something I think can only be applauded. Additionally, pop banger God Is A Woman places female sexual pleasure and women generally at the centre of sex and society – the genius music video should really be listed as required viewing alongside the album. Similarly, the track Successful is literally just about how successful Grande is – she sings “it feels so good to be so young / And have this fun and be successful”. This ownership of her success is something I think many young girls will appreciate, and hopefully take onboard.

Arguably the weakest tracks on Sweetener are Grande’s collaborations (minus Borderline). The Light Is Coming (feat. Nicki Minaj) and Blazed (feat. Pharrell Williams) are good, but seem to lack the confidence found in other tracks on the album: Grande arguably shines the best when she is given the whole stage to herself, which is no surprise given the sheer power of her voice.

Overall, Sweetener is a beautiful amalgamation of R’n’B beats, stunning vocals, and bubblegum pop tracks. You can dance to it, you can cry to it, you can (try and) sing to it. Grande’s attitude to life and sex makes the album even more of a pleasure to listen to. Sweetener is undoubtedly my favourite release of 2018 so far, and I wouldn’t be surprised if I were still saying the same thing in a few months time…

Individual Rating: 5/5

Picks: R.E.M, Better Off, Borderline (ft. Missy Elliot) and Successful

Rating: 4/5