If there’s a thematic thread weaving through Ariana Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, it’s that not everything is what it seems. The album’s first two singles attest to that notion: The deceptively mournful strains that open “No Tears Left to Cry” give way to a rush of shuffling garbage beats and a euphoric hook that remains at almost half-speed throughout, while the sultry, reggae-infused “God Is a Woman” is a feminist anthem disguised as a baby-making slow jam, a deeper reading revealing that Grande’s professed feminine wiles aren’t merely carnal. “I can be all the things you told me not to be/When you try to come for me, I keep on flourishing,” she sings defiantly.
Another pre-release track, “The Light Is Coming,” at first seems spiritual in nature, hinged on Grande’s infectious mantra, “The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole.” But the song also doubles as a rejoinder to our current political climate, an impression bolstered by an audio sample of a man at a town hall venting his frustrations about being silenced by those who are supposed to represent him, and syncopated verses in which Grande condemns a culture that incentivizes the questioning of others’ experiences.
The 25-year-old singer’s newfound wokeness was, perhaps, prompted in part by the deadly suicide bombing at her concert in Manchester, England last year. Grande recently disclosed that she was plagued by anxiety in the wake of the attack, a topic she sings about candidly here. She has a keen understanding of the seemingly illusory nature of panic attacks on “Breathin”—“Feel my blood running, swear the sky’s falling/I know that all this shit’s fabricated”—and offers a shoulder to others suffering from PTSD on “Get Well Soon,” the running time of which corresponds with the date of the Manchester attack.
Elsewhere on the album, Grande is savvy enough to deliver her message about the importance of mental health in more nuanced ways. Though “No Tears Left to Cry” is about resilience, it’s wisely packaged as a love song. And despite her ostensible maturity, Grande retains her playful, girlish sense of humor on the Prince-esque “Successful” and an interpolation of Imogen Heap’s sublime “Goodnight n Go,” on which the singer implores: “Oh, why’d you have to be so cute?/It’s impossible to ignore you.”
Grande’s vocals strike a measured chord throughout Sweetener, mostly settling into breathy Mariah mode, her words dripping into each other on the understated “Better Off” and blending seamlessly into the sleek synths in the background of the brief “Borderline.” Even within that style, however, Grande differentiates her delivery, whether it’s the half-rapped refrains of “No Tears Left to Cry” or the swooning girl-group harmonies of “R.E.M.”
Notably missing from Sweetener are any outright bangers. Despite its title, “Blazed” percolates unobtrusively, as do most of the other Pharrell-assisted tracks. The simmering “The Light Is Coming” is all skittish beats and throbbing sub-bass, while “R.E.M”—which features a hook taken from a Beyoncé demo—bops along to a midtempo groove of fingersnaps, 808s, and looped breaths.
The album’s offbeat title track is an oddity that doesn’t quite gel, marred by mixed metaphors and a grating refrain in which Grande plays her own hypewoman, and “Borderline” features a lamentably sqaundered cameo from Missy Elliott and paint-can beats that sound like they were exhumed from a Neptunes track from 2002. For the most part, though, the formula results in an album that’s both consistent and refined, a reflection of Grande’s growing awareness of herself as an artist and her place in the world.