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The Lowdown: It says something about the successes of Ariana Grande that it feels as if she’s been around forever, even though her music career only began in 2013. Well, half a decade is a long time in pop music, where careers could be measured in dog years. But despite the fact that Sweetener is Grande’s fourth album, she’s only 25, and, like many people in their mid-twenties, she’s still growing. On Sweetener, her often delightful and sometimes maddening new record, she displays a newfound maturity and a refreshing taste in off-kilter beats.
The Good: Sweetener opens with a run of infectiously fun Pharrell productions. Standouts include “Blazed”, which is somehow not about smoking weed, and “The Light Is Coming”, which is sonically linked to Pharrell’s song “Lemon” since both sample angry voices at a 2009 Pennsylvania town hall meeting. The beginning of the album is pure fire, a dose of sonic joy. The first single, and the first song she released in the aftermath of a terrorist attack at her 2017 concert in Manchester, England, is “No Tears Left to Cry”. Instantly, it became one of Grande’s signature songs, and it seems increasingly likely that she’ll still be belting it out in arenas years from now.
The Bad: “God Is a Woman” is a bit of plain, unremarkable sex, as forgettable as a one-night stand. While radio will love “Breathin”, it offers what might be the year’s least helpful advice for managing anxiety: “Just keep breathin’ and breathin’ and breathin’,” she repeats, over and over again, as if we were all in danger of doing the opposite. “Borderline” features Missy Elliott with one of the year’s laziest guest verses. And on the too-cute “Goodnight and Go”, when Grande sings, “Just say goodnight and go,” it’s tempting to take her advice before the song puts you to sleep.
The Verdict: It’s rare for an album with so many stunning moments to suddenly become so aggressively mediocre. Still, the highs of Sweetener outweigh the lows. But with such lofty highs, it’s hard to be content with the album that is and not think about what the album might have been.
Essential Tracks: “No Tears Left to Cry”, “Blazed”, and “The Light Is Coming”