Arts & Style

Sweetener addresses deaths of 22 fans in Grande’s 2017 Manchester concert

Ariana Grande, known for her consistent top 100 residency and bright songs that have spanned her career since 2013, released her newest batch of chart-topping contenders on Aug. 17 with her fourth studio album, Sweetener.

Running at just over 45 minutes, this 15-track record features a newer take on the retro stylings Grande has flexed before. Her signature rhythm and blues-inspired music mixed with modern electro-pop elevate her album with songs that balance well. The eclectic soundscape harbors both impressive experimentation and the nostalgic sound of ‘90s hip-hop.

Equally as impressive, Grande strives for mature growth in her lyrics that makes for interesting topics. Engaging titles like “God is a woman” stand out in today’s competitive music market and show a more captivating way of writing pop songs.

A major arc in each song is optimism. Grande explores the challenges posed by relationships, fame and evil in the world with a beaming attitude that shines in “no tears left to cry” and “better off.” Paired with glimmering production, the tones create an overall hopeful and sweet presence on the record. Grande also expertly delivers these new ideas with her remarkable vocal talent, while taking more risks by deviating from her predictable whistle tones and high notes to engage in different singing styles.

The opening track, “raindrops (an angel cried),” greets listeners with Grande’s familiar smooth-yet-powerful voice and a sampling of the 1964 song “An Angel Cried,” which introduces her take on the soulful sounds of past decades.

Pharrell Williams, aside from a guest feature on “blazed,” produced much of the record and added his iconic funk flare. Grande’s admiration for this sound frequently mixes well with Williams’ productions but falters a bit, particularly on tracks “borderline” and “the light is coming,” during which the bouncing beat drones on, making the longer tracks feel less vibrant.

Luckily, these moments are rescued by subsequent songs like “R.E.M,” in which the production lands perfectly, mixing sultry and soft ballads with cheeky lyrics about love being a dream. In “R.E.M.” and “God is a woman,” top producing paragons Max Martin and Ilya create equally dynamic and divine songs.

The controversial message of the latter demonstrates a new risk taken by Grande, who previously kept her music secularly appropriate, so to speak. It pays off well, providing independent lyrics like, “When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing,” that add to Grande’s mature confidence. Poised and ready, Grande welcomes back Pharrell’s production on “sweetener” and “successful,” on which she proclaims, “It seems so good to be so young / And have this fun and be successful.”

Aside from these self-assuring songs, Grande tackles relationship troubles in “everytime,” on which she admits her own faults with love. This honest confession takes an adult approach to love songs, exhibiting a recognition of making mistakes.

Sweetener also addresses serious moments in songs “breathin” and “no tears left to cry.” Despite their grand production, lyrics like, “Some days, things just take way too much of my energy,” stress the darker struggles Grande faces.

It’s hard not to notice this message, particularly after the 2017 Manchester bombing at her concert that claimed the lives of 22 people, including fans as young as 8. The tremendous post-traumatic stress from this weighed heavily on the survivors, and on Grande. But these despairing emotions don’t shut down her music, as she reminds both herself and listeners that they need to “just keep breathin’” and that she’s “comin’ out, even when it’s rainin’ down.”

Grande adds a more evident memorial to the victims through a simple yet touching tribute: The 40 seconds of silence at the end of “get well soon” make the song’s length five minutes and 22 seconds, leaving a moment of silence for the 22 fans lost on May 22, 2017.

She also addresses her own personal anxiety, sayng, “Ain’t no time to deny it, that is why we talking about it.” This is a brave proclamation to listeners to discuss mental challenges — an important message that is absent from modern pop music.

Grande shines with new confidence that strays away from a predictable pop formula and from criticism of everything from her current relationship to attitude. With riskier lyrics, experimental production and bold messages of trauma and hope, she is able to be both vulnerable and strong. Sweetener is far from artificial. Wrapped in the raw truths, Grande sheds sugary expectations and embraces growth through struggles.

September 13, 2018

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Sven Larsen


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