Once upon a time, Ariana Grande was just another thespian from Boca-Raton, Florida with big dreams to be the star of the stage. After paying her dues and making the transition from Broadway to Nickelodeon, she has finally evolved into an international icon that is one of the saving graces of pop.
When the 25-year-old performed her latest single “God is a woman” at the 33rd annual MTV VMAs, she beautifully brought Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” painting to life. One of Grande’s hidden talents is that she is fully aware of her strengths and is able to execute them to perfection—the audience barely notices her lack of choreographed routines because she hits a range of octaves that cause an outburst of goosebumps to spread on the flesh.
Grande doesn’t even need to dance in order to keep the viewer’s attention because she is constantly delivering dramatic performance art that gets everyone caught up by the spectacle of it all. Her mind orbits in another dimension that the average human will never be able to access.
It’s almost impossible to review Sweetener without mentioning the Manchester bombing attack that so many people are still recovering from a year later. Grande openly acknowledges the healing process that she endured after experiencing this tragedy first-hand on the opening track “raindrops (an angel cried”) as well as the lead single “no tears left to cry” along with the uplifting Pharrell Williams-produced bop “the light is coming.” It’s obvious that Grande has grown tremendously in the past year, both as an artist and a human being.
Grande’s feminist messages weren’t hard to read on 2016’s Dangerous Woman – she mostly maintained an image of innocence on her earlier albums Yours Truly and My Everything, but between the lines she has always been exploring the relationship between power and pleasure. Even though Big Sean previously praised Grande’s natural gifts on “Stay Down,” it took the song “Side To Side” for people to recognize the petite pop star as a mature woman who enjoys having sex.
Grande takes this a step further on “God is a woman,” a sexual liberation anthem that celebrates women being in full control of their sexuality. The accompanying visual directed by Dave Meyers references several paintings, including Michaelangelo’s “Creation of Adam,” Georgia O’Keefe’s “Black Iris,” Frida Kahlo’s “My Birth” and Judy Chicago’s “Female Rejection.” This empowering ballad is followed by the upbeat title track which is arguably the standout song off the project. “And then you get it, get it, get it, get it/ Hit it, hit it, hit it, hit it/ Flip it, flip it, flip it,” she chants with some sensual oohs thrown in the mix. Grande has nothing to be ashamed of therefore she will never be forced into silence. If anything, she has become more direct and aggressive about the subject.
This officially marks the first album where a song featuring one of Grande’s lovers is absent from the lineup. Instead, she recruited the iconic legend Missy Elliott and frequent collaborator Nicki Minaj. While the precious duets with Big Sean and Mac Miller songs will surely be missed by many, it’s awe-inspiring to see Grande triumphantly stand on her own.
While “pete davidson” is a not-so-subtle tribute to her fiancée of the same name, it serves as a sweet expression of her pure, unwavering devotion to the man she believes is her soulmate. Even though it’s only a snippet that she slid in toward the bottom of the album, this might be the purest thing that Grande has ever created. The happiness that she poured into this interlude is so contagious that you’ll have FOMO if you don’t feel the same way.
There are a few tracks that are easy to skip over, like “successful” and “everytime,” but for the most part, sweetener is a solid body of work that shows the rewards of perseverance. At some point, we all unexpectedly face something that changes the course of our life—the key is not allowing whatever it is to cause your life to downward spiral no matter how painful or traumatic. This album is ultimately a labor of love, but the passion has never been stronger. Grande is a survivor and she’ll keep on fighting until her soaring voice gives out.