SWEETENER BY ARIANA GRANDE // 5 YEAR ANIVERSARY ALBUM REVIEW

Sweetener marked a new era for Ariana Grande, one that is representative in every way of the light that came and brought back everything the darkness stole. It is a career defining album that comes after a period of deep, all-encompassing loves and heartbreaks. 

That dichotomy was represented in every aspect of this album, including the artwork. It was her first album cover that was in full color, although the photo of her is intentionally upside down to represent her mental state during the album's creation. "There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down," she told Elle in a 2018 interview. That is a symbolic creative choice that followed through into her next album only a few months later, thank u, next

Sweetener, in my opinion, is her best album sonically and visually. Her vision for this album was so clear, it is so bright, light, airy and overall pop perfection. Many of the singles were co-written and produced by ILYA, Savan Kotecha and Max Martin - all of whom were driving forces behind some of the biggest hits of her previous albums, My Everything and Dangerous Woman. So many tracks from Sweetener became instant classics in her discography. Because of thank u, next being released in close succession to this album and becoming such a massive commercial success, parts of Sweetener do feel like it was overshadowed by it. But as a complete body of work, I do personally think that Sweetener is a stronger and more cohesive. 

It was also her first time working primarily with Pharrell Williams, and so far the only. This is a creative partnership I hope they return to in the future because this sound really was magic for her. Until then, Sweetener is so singular in her discography for that very reason. There are so many fun moments throughout this album where they were experimenting and crafting a new, elevated, mature sound. I have also noticed parallels between Sweetener and another Pharrell-produced classic, The Sweet Escape by Gwen Stefani. Many aspects of this album feel like intentional callbacks to this early 2000s pop sound that he is so well known for producing. It really seems like he and Ariana set out to make a literal sweet escape within the musical universe of Sweetener. 

Sweetener was her fourth album release, a follow-up to 2016's Dangerous Woman. This album comes about a year and a half after a 2017 terrorist attack on her concert in Manchester, an absolute tragedy that took 22 lives and injured over 500 more. The aftermath of this horrific attack influenced so much of her approach to music going forward and was dedicated to those who lost their lives. At the time of promoting Sweetener, she didn't really go into detail directly about her own story in the aftermath, as to not to overshadow the victims and their families. In a 2018 interview with Elle, she did open up about her mental health struggles in a more general way that gave insight into her mindset during the creation of Sweetener; "When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells, this feeling like I couldn’t breathe ... I would be in a good mood, fine and happy, and they would hit me out of nowhere. I've always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before. There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down." 

Those intense feelings that are all-encompassing are present throughout so much of Sweetener. "no tears left to cry" is a song that comes to mind first, as it was the lead single for the album. It feels so representative of her finding the light at the end of the tunnel in the context of this dark period of life she was in at the time. She sings, "Right now I'm in a state of mind, I wanna be in like all the time, ain't got no tears left to cry, so I'm picking it up ... loving, I'm living, I'm picking it up". After a long hiatus, this song served as such a powerful comeback for her. The music video also brings those themes to life in such a beautiful and symbolic way. Dave Meyers, the director of the "no tears left to cry" video said, "The concept that we wanted to explore was the disorientation that you go through in life. And the quest we all go through to find the ground again. We sort of explore the ambiguity of whether we need to find the ground, or the ground is just what you make of it. It relates to the optimism in her song..."

"breathin" is another track that feels so deeply personal to the headspace she was in at the time, in a way that none of her music was up to this point before. Before Sweetener, much of her first three albums were never really written in such a way that is personal to her or gives any insight into who she is behind the popstar persona she portrays. With Sweetener, thank u, next and Positions, her music has really taken a new direction in that regard as she has opened up about so many really difficult experiences and complex emotions she has faced in her life. "breathin" is such a moving song in that regard, with a message that many have been able to find solace in themselves. She sings, "Some days, things just take way too much of my energy, I look up and the whole room's spinning," in the opening lines. Much of the lyrics directly connect to the Elle quote from earlier, when she candidly spoke of the intense, physical anxiety she has experienced and the moments she felt like her life was upside down. Of course, her incredible vocals are always at the forefront of every song and every album she has ever made, but "breathin" in particular is among the best of the best. I especially love the closing lines where she sings, "Feel my blood runnin', swear the sky's fallin', I keep on breathin', time goes by and I can't control my mind".

"better off" also features gorgeous, angelic vocals, but is also such a heartbreaking and vulnerable song lyrically. Ariana said in an interview with Zach Sang, "I wasn’t gonna put it on the album because I didn’t think I’d be where I am in life now and like it was almost too honest about like what I was afraid of happening and then life changed and things happened and I was like 'You know what? That’s a really beautiful record and it’s something that is honest or whatever and here you go.'" She sings, "Steering clear of any headaches to start and if we're being honest, I'd rather your body than half of your heart". I often think of this song in the same context as "imagine", which was the opener of thank u, next and written about the late Mac Miller, who she dated for several years until early 2018. He unfortunately passed away later that year. Both possess such a deep honesty that is beyond any other song about love or her relationships that she has written before. 

Along with the heavier topics that are explored on this album, so much of Sweetener also includes so much love and pure joy within the lyricism. "R.E.M." is one of my favorites from the album for that very reason. It started as a demo Pharrell and Beyoncé worked on together a few years prior called "Wake Up", written initially for her 2013 self-titled album but ultimately never ended up making the cut. A few years later, he and Ariana re-worked it for Sweetener, and made it into the dreamy pop classic that it is today. So much of this album is quintessentially Ariana to me, but "R.E.M." especially feels so representative of the love and wistful romanticism she captures in her music so well. There are so many cute lyrics throughout "R.E.M." but I have always loved the line, "I love you - who starts a conversation like that? Nobody, but I do". 

Another gorgeous moment from the album is track 13, "goodnight n go". This song is a cover of Imogen Heap's "Goodnight and Go", with some lyrical changes and a complete transformation of the production style. Imogen Heap is an artist that Ariana has noted as a major musical inspiration, and she gave this song a new life in such a perfect way. "goodnight n go" is such a shining moment on the album, it is so stunning and captures the magic of Sweetener in such a beautiful way. 

Another song that also represents that same pure love and joy that she had at this time in her life is for track 12, "pete davidson". This is just a really cute interlude that she wrote for her fiancé at the time, who she named the song after. She sings, "universe must have my back, fell from the sky into my lap, and I know you know that you're my soul mate and all that" and "my whole life got me ready for you". It also connects back to "R.E.M.", especially with the lyric "But I just want to stand and yell, I will never dare to tell, think I heard some wedding bells, shh, keep it to yourself". 

At the time she was receiving a lot of media attention for her relationships - not much has changed since then in that regard - so there is a lot of history and deeper context behind so much of this album. It really is such a time capsule for this brief moment in pop culture too. Her whirlwind relationship and engagement to Pete Davidson was at the center of much of the latter half of Sweetener's creation and release, and even more so with thank u, next's release only a few months later. There really isn't any room for speculation regarding who this song is about, since it directly names him and could only ever be about him.

Regardless of what ultimately happened between them, this time in her life inspired some of the best songs she has ever written and that will forever live on in this music. On Twitter, she shared a similar thought at the time regarding her decision to name the song after Pete, "...Music lasts forever. It’ll outlive any tattoo, any memory, any anything - even myself; so I want my love for him and how I feel to be a part of that."

So much of Sweetener is truly career defining music for Ariana's career. "God is a woman" is one of the biggest highlights for me, it is such an empowering song that it is so incredible and perfect in every aspect. Her vocals are once again immaculate and the production is stellar. I love that it sounds like she has an entire gospel choir behind her, but it's just her voice layered and multiplied. The music video is also a masterpiece in itself, with her recreating famous artwork through history under a feminist lens. This album has such a strong visual component to it, one that truly captures the beauty and essence of the music in such a perfect way. I said it before when talking about the music video for "no tears left to cry", but the same sentiment rings true for the "God is a woman" video too, the music is brought to life in such an incredibly powerful way with that video. Everything about this song is so iconic. 

Although it was never an official single, another song that is one of the best she has ever made is "everytime". The production is so incredible and it has such an infectious melody. In the chorus she sings, "Why, oh why does God keep bringing me back to you?" The live version from her k, bye for now tour album is somehow even more amazing, those high notes at the end give me goosebumps every time!

This album is also stacked with great features too. Nicki Minaj, who she has collaborated with several times over the years is featured on "the light is coming", which reminds me so much of N.E.R.D's "Lemon" with the inclusion of the repetitious sample. Missy Elliot also features on "borderline", which is honestly a less notable performance from both of them, but feels cohesive sonically to the rest of the album. 

My favorite of these collaborations is "blazed", featuring Pharrell. It is such a fun song with kind of a 90s and early 2000s hip hop vibe to it. It's such a different and experimental sound for Ariana, but classic Pharrell at the same time. It has such a fun and carefree energy to it, in the same way that some of the other best songs from Sweetener are too. That same style of production that Pharrell is so well known for is present throughout so much of the album he worked on with her. A song like "successful", is also such a joyous and lighthearted song too, much like "blazed", but with a message of female empowerment. She sings, "It feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful, I'm so successful, and girl, you too, you are so young and beautiful and so successful". 

The title track, "sweetener", was the first song she completed for the album and seemed to have set the tone for the rest of the record. Lyrically it is kind of a silly song, but it is cute nonetheless. The one lyric I truly do love is, "when life deals us cards, makes everything taste like it salt, then you come through with the sweetener you are, to bring the bitter taste to a halt". That lyric, along with "the light is coming to bring back everything the darkness stole" feels so representative of the thesis of this album. 

One of the most important songs Ariana has ever made is the closing track, "get well soon". “It’s all the voices in my head talking to one another,” she told Elle. She goes into detail about her mental health and created what she wanted to be a "musical hug" for those feeling the same. In the chorus she sings, "This is for everybody, babe, you gotta take care of your body, ain't no time to deny it, that is why we talking about it ... to deal with it, don't try to get by it, ain't no time to deny it, so we had to sit down and just write it" In an interview with Beats1, Pharrell talked about the meaning behind the song and how important the message is, "...What I love about “get well soon” is this is Ari going through something not quite as severe but going through a situation where she was depressed ... and she had the willingness to put that out there for the world and that’s how we made “get well soon” because she was open and she trusted and she let me push. We wanted this to be a hallmark card for that kind of situation." 

"I felt like I was floating for like 3 months last year and not in a nice way," Ariana recalled of the time in her life this was inspired by. After each line in the verses she repeats, "Girl what's wrong with you? Come back down" to bring light to those feelings. It really does feel like a musical hug while listening to it, it is so incredibly healing in such a powerful way. She goes into detail about what she was experiencing in such a vulnerable way. In the opening lines of the song, she sings, "They say my system is overloaded, I'm too much in my head, did you notice? My body's here on Earth, but I'm floatin', disconnected so sometimes I feel frozen and alone". She has talked a lot about how difficult that time in her life was and how this song in particular was very difficult for her to write. She said Pharrell gave her advice about how to get through it, "You have to write about it. You need to make this into music and get this shit out, and I promise it will heal you," he told her. After making this song, she said, "It definitely helped. It still took me a few weeks to feel better but looking back at it now from a healthier place, it’s probably one of the most important songs I’ll ever write."

40 seconds of silence are included at the end of the track, making the song five minutes and twenty-two seconds long, a tribute to the date of the Manchester Arena attack on May 22, 2017. 

Thinking back to where this album began with "raindrops (an angel cried)", where she sings "when raindrops fell down from the sky, the day you left me, an angel cried", it feels such a full circle moment of all of the emotions this entire album, but especially "get well soon", embodies. It is a partial cover of a song called "An Angel Cried" by The Four Seasons. This song also serves as a tribute to her late grandfather, as well, whose best friend actually even wrote the original song in the 1950's. While it is only a short intro, it is so powerful and still gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. "raindrops (an angel cried)" and "get well soon" serve as bookends to this album in such a beautiful and symbolic way. 


Five years later, Sweetener continues to be Ariana Grande's strongest, most cohesive, body of work yet, with a sound so distinctive and singular within her discography. I knew from the first time I listened to this album that it was going to become an all-time favorite, which I have only grown to love more and more. For her to be able to turn such a dark period into her life into something so beautiful and healing is so admirable. I will forever love the universe she created within this music, one that serves as a sweet escape for all that listen. 

¡ƃuᴉpɐǝɹ ɹoɟ sʞuɐɥʇ 

-Melissa ♡

Photo Credit: Ariana Grande, Republic Records


Related Posts:

Comments

Popular Posts

MY FAVORITE RED LIPSTICKS

COLOURPOP x DISNEY DESIGNER COLLECTION REVIEW

Yours Truly by Ariana Grande // 10 Year Anniversary Album Review

GUTS by Olivia Rodrigo // Album Review

The 5 Seconds of Summer Show // Live in New York City at Madison Square Garden!