What ever happened to The Female Pop Star? With Drake, Post Malone and other rappers utterly dominating the Billboard charts, the hit-making titans of yesteryear have been notably absent in 2018: Rihanna is too busy with Fenty Beauty to release a proper hit, Katy Perry has been exiled to “American Idol” purgatory and Lady Gaga is now palling around with Bradley Cooper to remake a country music film that has already been remade. Yes, there’s Cardi B’s rapping, Taylor Swift’s evil twin and the Carters’ newfound marital bliss — but the current pop landscape is still a far cry from the early 2010s when a pop goddess could simply sigh and an army of teenage girls (and gays) would instantaneously propel a single to No. 1.
Enter Ariana Grande, the lone starlet who hasn’t been voted off the proverbial music island. Her music is only preceded by her IRL drama, which has followed her since her humble beginnings as a secondary character on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious.” There was “donut-gate,” in which she notoriously saw — and licked — a donut so decadent as to make her proclaim, “I hate America.” (The backlash resulted in a public apology spree). Then last summer, a terrorist attack killed 22 people at her concert in Manchester, England — prompting Grande to plan a star-studded benefit concert and then go into hiding to process her trauma. Next, after ending a “toxic” relationship with rapper Mac Miller, she became engaged to Pete Davidson of “Saturday Night Live” after dating for only a couple months. (There are endless memes online about this.) And finally, most recently, Grande made national news after being groped by a priest at a memorial for Aretha Franklin where she did a cover of “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman.”
But fame and exposure have never adulterated Grande’s music — indeed, her fourth album “Sweetener” is the work of an artist taking risks in her prime. The album debuted at number one, but Grande’s biggest accomplishment here is crafting a collection of left-field pop songs which, to date, are her most convincing argument that she can hold her own against more established pop legends.
Once dubbed the “pint-sized Mariah Carey” for her impeccable range, Grande has always been famous for her voice — but her room for improvement in “Sweetener” comes from the ability to experiment with production and narrative. In a recent interview with Troye Sivan in Paper Magazine, Grande admitted, “[W]ith all due respect to ‘My Everything’ and ‘Dangerous Woman,’ [her two previous albums] … I feel like I played the game a lot on those two albums. … I wanted to make dope records that would put me in a place where I could then make whatever the fuck I wanted.”
And make whatever the fuck she wanted, she did. Much of “Sweetener” is a deeply weird pop album that completely sidesteps the EDM and mumble rap trends du jour. Pharrell produces half the tracks, cowbells, funk and all! There’s a redo of a Beyonce demo (“R.E.M”) and a cover of an Imogen Heap song (“goodnight n go”) which both sound like lit Christmas music in a good way! For some reason, there’s an obnoxious sample of a conservative protestor on the Nicki Minaj assisted “the light is coming”! There’s an interlude titled “pete davidson” which is so tender it might make you cry!
Oh, and there are bops. “God is a woman” is a single about being so good at sex that you make a man see the divine, with a music video featuring Madonna and a “Pulp Fiction” quote to boot.
“breathin” is another standout (which will inevitably be the next single) which borrows a conceit from a 2011 Jason Derulo hit — and Grande transcends the song’s average bones with a zillion vocal and lyrical flourishes that elevate the track from start to finish. There’s a perfect irony when she sings, “Some days, things just take, way too much of my energy,” with effortless, acrobatic melisma; a perfect narrative of overcoming anxiety post-Manchester; a perfect moment when she starts the second chorus a cappella; a perfect self-reference to her previous hit “Into You” which starts, “I’m so into you, I can barely breathe.” Her cadence when she sings, “the whole room’s spin-ning” is like a sigh, hiccup and wink all in one.
Given the personal turmoil Grande has experienced recently, it’s easy to imagine an alternative reality in which she released an album crammed with mauldin power ballads. But “Sweetener” is all the better in its content and style for subverting this expectation. The lowercase stylization of each song, the upside down theme in the album artwork and music videos, the rainbow spectrum motif: Everything culminates in a fully fleshed out point of view, expressing light in the dark, color in the colorless. The album covers for Grande’s three previous albums “Yours Truly,” “My Everything,” and “Dangerous Woman” were in only black and white. Finally, “Sweetener” — in its imagery, music and narrative — is the first album to show her completely in color.
Wayne Zhang | email@example.com