Image: Republic Records

At times, Ariana Grande can seem like a pop star who was created using the results of a focus group. Her career trajectory could’ve been cobbled together from tabloids in the early aughts: there’s the child star career, widely covered diva tendencies (donut, anyone?), and plasticky outfits so signature they’re basically costumes. Her unpretentious pop music, which has zig-zagged between dramatic EDM and Mariah Carey-biting R&B, consumes radio stations with every release, leaving very few people unaware of her famously insane vocal range. Yet in an era in which milquetoast viral stars (whose actual singing and performing abilities often seem like an afterthought) continually snap up record deals, Grande’s larger-than-life approach to pop, one which only seeks to make a feel-good hit, remains the real deal.

Grande is a star because of this workhorse consistency (and probably as well for bringing .gifs like this into our life) but not necessarily for her risk-taking, because she simply doesn’t take them. Aside from questionable attempts at marketing her sex appeal, musically Grande stays in the shallow end of the pop pool, working with same name brand producers, pumping out trendy, effusively girly mega-hits and the occasional Disneyfied ballad on which she can belt to her heart’s content. She’s not one to do something far out of her zone. At least, until now.

Grande’s fourth studio album Sweetener is a weird one. If you heard the dark, grandiose pop of the album’s two singles “no tears left to cry” and “God is a woman,” in the vein of literally everything she’s already done, and thought you’d be getting another Dangerous Woman, you are sorely mistaken. Aside from a few non-surprises courtesy of Swedish pop masterminds Max Martin and ILYA plus longtime Grande collaborator Tommy Brown, Sweetener is dominated by the production of Pharrell Williams. But rather than fill her new record with the loud funk-pop he’s been making and producing for others over the past few years, Williams gives Sweetener a surprisingly wonky, minimalist texture, and Grande has never sounded mellower.

The production here is charmingly retro, with Williams piling on 808 drums, keyboards, and percolating synths on songs like the laidback “R.E.M.” and “the light is coming,” which is a sister song to N.E.R.D.’s “Lemon” from last year. “Successful” might be the most delightfully bizarre of the bunch as Grande sings about being so good, so young, and so successful, over a dopey keyboard composition that sounds like it could be exceptionally good hold music. But the fun evident in the production matches the sense of humor Grande has here, as well. “I don’t care who is listening,” Grande sings (I can only assume) of her repeatedly roasted romance with comedian Pete Davidson on the funky bass-propelled “blazed.” “’Cause they be making fun of this on TV!” It all just works so well that by the time you hit “no tears left to cry,” you have no idea what it’s even doing there on the album.

Traditionally, Grande has made music designed to be played in stadiums, confetti guns firing from every corner. Her last album, Dangerous Woman, was so unbelievably loud that half of the songs sounded like the “BRAAAM” noise from Hans Zimmer’s Inception score. And while none of it overpowered Grande, a theater kid who seems to relish hitting higher and higher notes, to always hear her fighting with her own production could get exhausting. But with Williams’s stripped-down production on Sweetener, we get to hear her really play with her voice; sing-talking on songs like “the light is coming,” giving breathy, layered vocals alongside Missy Elliott on the early ’00s R&B throwback “borderline,” or imitating her idol Imogen Heap on her cover of “Goodnight and Go.” 

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Given the themes of Sweetener, you wouldn’t want to hide it with an avalanche of speaker-frying synths and warbled power vocals anyway. It might be tempting to read this Grande album as a toned-down response to a hard year in the wake of the Manchester bombing attack at her own concert in 2017, but Sweetener shines as a record about Grande’s very public, very gushy, newfound love. “I love you,” Grande sings on “R.E.M.” “Who starts a conversation like that? Nobody, but I do.” When you hear Grande sing, “you get high and call on the regular, I get weak and fall like a teenager” on the sole Martin-produced standout “everytime,” you know these are not the kind of love songs that will soundtrack future sultry romantic dramas. This is cute, strictly early 20s shit.

As a 25-year-old pop star with youthful tastes (listen, if she can make cat-ears work for her year-round, good for her) and a largely PG-13 sound, critics have long wondered, as is typical when it comes to child stars, how Ariana Grande would “grow up” in the industry. Dangerous Woman was positioned as Grande finally taking the next logical step as a young woman pop singer, releasing aggressively Sexy music with a capital S. But listening to Sweetener, its longterm charting potential still elusive at this point, the risks Grande takes here are perhaps the most grown-up thing she’s ever done. And sometimes the part when you break free from the past, when it finally happens in real life, doesn’t always include a bass drop.