With a considerable amount of hype leading up to it — at least, if my Facebook and Instagram feeds were to be believed — “Sweetener,” the latest record by Ariana Grande, piqued my interest.
I’ve always said Grande is a phenomenally talented performer, with an incredible voice and acting chops to boot. But I was never fully on board with her, as I often felt she lent her voice to mostly generic pop tracks.
With a single as strong as “no tears left to cry,” though, I thought “Sweetener” might be the album the album that changes my mind regarding the songstress.
And in many ways, that’s what I got. But it’s more fair to describe “Sweetener” as a mixed bag, where Grande occasionally engages in a type of progressive pop music, while other times she just falls into the normal traps of Top 40-ism.
Some of this seems owed to a veritable tug-of-war between Pharrell Williams and all of the other producers on the record, including Max Martin, Ilya, Hit-Boy and others. Pharrell produces the bulk of the tracks on the album — and if you’re the sort of person who can pick a Pharrell song out of a crowd, it won’t be hard on this record either — which leaves the remaining songs feeling at odds with his.
This leads to a sort of jumbled, mish-mash of sounds, with some feeling a bit half-baked. That’s especially true for the album’s opening cut, “raindrops (an angel cried),” a 30-second-long “intro” song which really just feels like the first verse of a song that feels suddenly cut off.
Almost as if an unseen hand took control of your stereo and skipped to the next track, the listener is suddenly jettisoned from Max Martin and Ilya’s emotional-sounding opening to a Pharrell Williams banger with “blazed,” which actually features vocals from Pharrell.
Truly, “blazed” would have made a more fitting opening track, as it’s just a really fun pop song. Infused with the sort of R&B sensibilities that you may have caught on the newest Janelle Monáe record, “blazed” bounces around the room with the frenetic sort of production Pharrell is known for, and Grande’s gorgeous voice is the perfect complement for the sound.
Quickly, though, things get too frenetic for Pharrell. Case in point is the Nicki Minaj-featured “the light is coming.” While Grande’s vocals on the chorus are as catchy as ever, the song is built around a sample of some guy yelling at Senator Arlen Spector from back in 2009 (no, really, I swear). The sample is repeated so often that the track feels unnecessarily cluttered, and Nicki’s verse is one of the more lackluster we’ve heard from her in a while.
The best of the Pharrell-produced tracks on the record is undoubtedly the title track, with a driving, insistent chorus that calls to remind the commands of the classic game Bop It, but just, you know, sexier. It’s an awesome track, and one of my favorites from the record, just slightly behind “no tears left to cry” (which is, incidentally, the only Martin and Ilya produced track that I think is any fun).
From there, though, things just sort of level off for me. Songs vary between either being kind of grating — like the annoyingly braggadocious “successful” — or simply forgettable — which is how I feel about basically the entire last third of the album, from “borderline” to the end.
Ultimately, I do feel a bit disappointed by “Sweetener.” I still think Grande is an incredibly talented singer. However, she keeps setting herself up with songwriters and producers who either make messy tracks or forgettable ones. It leads to an album that, while having a few bright spots, is just as forgettable as those songs.
Reach Patrick Kernan at 570-991-6386 or on Twitter @PatKernan
Artist: Ariana Grande
Best Tracks: ‘no tears left to cry,’ ‘sweetener’
Worst Tracks: Basically the final third of the record