Pop artists often hesitate to create unabashedly positive songs. In a culture that demands humility while simultaneously — and ironically — idolizing celebrity, the genre often veers a little too much toward inspirational hits such as “Brave” or “Fight Song” that explicitly appeal to listeners but shy away from personal explosions of the artist’s jubilation. Ariana Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, works against this convention in a modern reimagination of easy listening, with its smooth beats and upbeat themes. Despite the album’s complex arrangements — assured in its production by two of the strongest producers in popular music — the album has the distinct feeling of ease and simple beauty.
This feeling is perfectly exemplified on the first song of the album: “raindrops (an angel cried).” It was written by Bob Gaudio, the musical mastermind behind 1960s hit songs such as “Short Shorts” and countless hits for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, of which he was an early member. Serving as the opening song on the album, “raindrops” also provides a perfect thesis for the album — one of love, longing, happiness, and Grande’s godlike vocal runs.
In an album full of light, airy hits, the one weak point comes early with “the light is coming.” Although Nicki Minaj’s verse bangs in the way her verses almost always do and the hook is catchy and intricate, a sampling of a man with a scratchy voice saying “You wouldn’t let anybody speak and instead” plays on repeat for the entire song. The song is a welcome diversion from the soft simplicity of the other songs, but the insistence on using the same sample every 10 seconds makes the song almost unlistenable. If you are able to look past that grating phrase, however, the song makes it clear that the remainder of the album that lies ahead will be about light, not darkness. This is also suggested by the album cover art, which deviates from the black-and-white cover art of her past three albums.
Beyond the songs about loving and being loved that wrap the listener in warm, sweatered arms, Grande makes another thing clear: The sex ain’t bad, either.
Grande’s album exemplifies the new era of complete, unfettered self-confidence in female artists. While female rappers such as Nicki Minaj, a frequent Grande collaborator, have often schooled listeners on power, money and sexual prowess, this is less commonly seen from female pop artists. With “God is a woman,” Grande takes complete control of her sexuality. Here, Grande depicts herself as a bewitching siren from Greek mythology, although perhaps Aphrodite would be closer to the point.
“Sweetener,” the titular song from the album, also talks about doing the dirty, but instead of a dynamic based in power, it is one based in love and mutual affection. In two songs, Grande paints her own sexuality as multifaceted and complex, presenting nuance and layers to what good sex looks like, sounds like, feels like and tastes like.
What these songs share, however, in addition to sex, is a strong undercurrent of satisfaction that runs just below the beats of every song on the album. This jubilant satisfaction is, no doubt, in part the work of producer Pharrell, who produced half of the album and is featured on “blazed.”
It is impossible to listen to Grande’s newest album and not feel incredibly happy for the artist. She has had a year full of ups and downs, but this album is a clear indication that she has come out on the other side happy and still making great music. Sweetener wastes no time in apologizing for any of this happiness and instead invites the listener along for the ride.