Roundtable Discussion: A Review of Ariana Grande’s ‘Sweetener’

Sweetener - Ariana Grande

Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss Ariana Grande’s fourth album Sweetener, her new musical direction, the influence of producers Pharrell and Max Martin, and how this album reflects Grande’s identity as a global pop superstar.

Featured here are writers Mariel Fechik, Matthew Tordoff, Josh Weiner, Kelly McCafferty, and Nicole Almeida

Sweetener - Ariana Grande

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Sweetener was definitely very hyped. Did it meet your expectations?

Mariel: I think I might be the outlier in this roundtable in that I had never actively sought out Ariana Grande before and didn’t even know this album was coming out until the day it did. I only decided to listen because a friend with whom I share a lot of musical taste raved about it on Instagram, and found myself shocked when I really liked (most) of it. If I had to answer this question directly, I’d say it exceeded my expectations, mostly because I didn’t really think of her as someone with a ton of weight in the music world before. I had always admired her voice, but her big hits never did it for me.

Matthew: Sweetener definitely grew on me after a handful of listens, and initially I wasn’t sure what to think of it. But, I’m happy I stuck with it; because Grande’s latest offering definitely surpassed my expectations. She’s improved with each successive release, and has given us a career best album. It’s somehow both aloof, and vulnerable – giving us enough to stew over, while maintaining some modicum of privacy, all set to innovative new production (at least where Grande is concerned).

Josh: Totally! Based on her previous releases, Ariana Grande is one of the strongest, most capable vocalists in the world, and has excellent tastes in production and featured artists. At no point was I let down in these regards while listening to Sweetener. As always, her music is by turns soothing and upbeat, and consistently involving and enjoyable. Worthy of the hype, I’d say.

Kelly: Sweetener actually exceeded my expectations. I knew a lot of marketing was surrounding the release, and I knew I was a fan of Ariana’s previous work, but what I wasn’t expecting was to be completely taken over by this album. It’s been a constant in my headphones all week, and although I would try to retreat to other albums, this body of work kept me coming back for more (and it continues to do so).

Nicole: To be honest I didn’t really know what to expect since, like some here, I hadn’t ever actively listened to Ariana Grande before “no tears left to cry”. That being said, both singles released before the album and Grande’s song with Troye Sivan got me excited for the album, and the more I read about her developing artistry and how this album was going to represent a new leaf for Grande, the more I waited for Sweetener. When the album came out I was honestly underwhelmed during the first listen. I feel like “no tears” and “God is a woman” where somehow misleading as singles because they represent a sonicscape and production style that isn’t really present for most of the album – Pharrell, rather than Max Martin, takes over Sweetener. I feel like my expectations were set too high, I’m a huge fan of Martin and especially his work with female pop superstars, but the more I listen to the album the more it grows on me.

What are your favorite and least favorite songs off Sweetener?

Mariel: My favorite songs are a tie between “blazed” and “successful.” And perhaps even the title track, as well. Working with Pharrell was a really smart move on her part. His writing really did a lot for her, I think, and these songs are so incredibly catchy – and actually really interesting! They’re a lot different than what I would usually expect from a Top 40 style album, and they have a really cool, almost retro sound to them. This is not necessarily a favorite, but I find it really fascinating that she covered Imogen Heap’s “Goodnight and Go.” I’d like to hear her reasoning for that, and I always wish it was made more clear that it isn’t her song. My least favorites are probably “God is a woman” and “breathin.” I can’t even remember how “breathin” goes without listening to it, and I feel like “God is a woman” is another just another version of “Dangerous Woman.”

Matthew: I mentioned previously how I needed a few listens for Sweetener to really sink in, but “breathin” simply clicked. It’s a bop. And, feels like “Into You”’s spiritual successor. The production, and repetition mirrors the anxiety Grande sings about, and her vocal restraint is particularly noticeable here. I have a feeling Grande’s queer fans will latch onto this certified bop, the same way they did with “Greedy” and “Into You”. Meanwhile, I’m ironically indifferent to the eponymous “sweetener”, because where “breathin” got repetition right, “sweetener” didn’t. And, eventually it became too monotonous for my taste. But, the album is overall quite strong, in spite of the two juxtaposed sounds.

Josh: I came into the album already a big fan of the singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman,” both of which prove what an incredible vocal talent our petite heroine from Boca Raton is. As my listening progressed, I find myself especially impressed with “The Light is Coming”– which proves how infectious her music can be and what an unstoppable duo she and Nicki Minaj are together– along with the upbeat “Blazed” and the beautifully sung “Goodnight n Go.” I would cite all of these as Sweetener standouts, and honestly can’t really condemn any songs on this impressively consistent new album as my “least favorite.”

Kelly: My favorites and least favorites actually fall into two distinct categories. The tracks that solely feature Ariana stand out as my favorites while the collaborations have fallen behind as my least favorites. While the collaborations definitely add punch to the album I feel they slightly disturb the very specific energy and flow that Ariana puts off in her solo tracks.

Nicole: My favourite song on the album is “goodnight n go”, the one song that stood out to me since my first listen. I’m also a huge fan of “breathin”, “pete davidson”, “sweetener”, “no tears”, and “God is a woman”, but “goodnight n go” really stopped me on my tracks when I first listened. It is reminiscent of Taylor Swift’s “delicate”, but a little more pastel-coloured, and Grande’s voice is simply stunning. I love how she put her own spin on the song, which is an Imogen Heap cover, but still managed to retain so many elements of the original one. Out of the originals, “breathin” helped me through some anxiety-ridden moments a few days ago, and I think that proved the track’s power and meaning to me, it’s a close second. My least favourite song is most definitely “the light is coming”. I somehow like how weird it is, but I just don’t understand the song, it feels very out of place in the album, and just kind of pointless, really. Whenever I listen to it I find myself asking “What were they meaning to do with this track? What’s the intent behind it?”. It might just be weird for the sake of being weird, but it has a message of hope that doesn’t really match the song’s production.

Does Sweetener stand out specifically against the rest of Ariana Grande’s discography, and if so, how?

Mariel: I can’t really make an informed statement on this, as I haven’t listened fully to any of her previous albums, but I would say that it does. Every time I hear one of her older singles, I’m not even sure if it’s her, because it sounds so similar to everything else on the pop stations. These songs stick out to me. They’re fun, different, and even a little more restrained than usual. Her voice is so beautiful, and it’s nice to really hear its subtleties and nuances.

Matthew: I don’t know if it stands out, rather it feels like a logical next step from Dangerous Woman. The angst and melodrama are prevalent on both albums, but the sound and approach to these themes are different. Sweetener is, for want of a better word, sweet. Whereas, Dangerous Woman is more of a conventional approach to the age old conundrum of a previously “wholesome” artist trying to sound more edgy and mature. I think it was quite the risk for Grande to follow up a decidedly pessimistic-in-tone album with something so overtly optimistic. And, perhaps that’s why Sweetener stands out against the remainder of Grande’s discography.

Josh: It doesn’t really stand out from her previous work in the sense that it sounds radically different or features a totally transformed production team (neither of which I would really argue). Yet it can be argued as a “standout moment” for Ariana Grande in other respects: with Sweetener, she becomes the rare songstress to make it to her fourth album (her fourth good album, moreover) and has really established a solid lineup of effective collaborators that seem poised to stand by her side and propel her already-impressive career forward for the indefinite future.

Kelly: Yes, I was a big fan of My Everything which falls to a close second. I hate to say she’s “found her voice,” because I believe true artists and what they sing about at the time they are singing about it is their true voice. However, I will say there’s something about Ariana coming into her own in this album. She admires the pop divas (Aretha, Whitney, Mariah) of the world, but with this album, I think she’s truly breaking into that space instead of admiring it from a distance.

Nicole: I’m not really well-informed about the rest of Grande’s discography to talk about this, but I feel like it’s interesting to see just how much this album has been embraced as Grande’s musical identity by the artist herself, especially since I remember the rave reviews that came with Dangerous Woman. I am curious about her previous works and Sweetener has definitely makes me want to do my homework and research Grande and her other albums.

How, if at all, do you believe the listening experience differs between established fans and casual fans, or those who are just really getting into the artist?

Mariel: Like I mentioned, this is my first time digging into an Ariana album. I was shocked to find myself really into it and listening to some songs on repeat. I don’t really like her older music, so I don’t know if I’m allowed to call myself a fan yet. I’m interested to see where she goes from here.

Matthew: I’ve only ever had the stomach for a small handful of Grande’s singles, and tried listening to Dangerous Woman when it was released, although the majority of it wasn’t to my taste. But, depending on what her established fans were expecting, Sweetener is either exactly what they were praying for, or something they were left feeling puzzled by. Meanwhile, I think casual listeners, who don’t have any expectations, will be pleasantly surprised at the blend of both stereotypical and experimental pop.

Josh: If you somehow approached this record having never listened to Ariana Grande before, you would be met with the same surprise that the rest of us experienced years ago: how such a HUGE voice can be concealed inside a small, skinny, innocent-looking womanchild. Established Ariana fans will probably experience fewer such surprises on Sweetener but should nonetheless feel satisfied to have been served another successful release from the pop superstar.

Kelly: I believe that everyone experiences songs and albums on an individual level. Whether you are a longtime fan or a first time listener – you’re going to take each song and hear it, relate to it, feel it in a way that is unique to you. You may have some judgements and expectations going into it, but what I think is great about this album and the tracks on it, is that they speak for themselves. There isn’t a lot of room to think about other things – the songs take over when you start to listen.

Nicole: I don’t really know how to answer this since I’m a casual listener who’s just getting into the artist. I do think that comparing her lead singles off Sweetener to her past lead singles, Sweetener definitely shows maturity and a developed artistry. It feels like she’s making music for herself and not to fit a formula anymore, and this was actually the reason why I decided to start following Grande’s career and music after “no tears”, since I saw that something had changed with her music and I truly believed in it now. I still get floored by her voice – especially live – and can’t wait to binge-listen to her other albums and actually hear her development.

Ariana Grande © Dave Meyers
Ariana Grande © Dave Meyers

Ariana Grande worked with two huge names on most of the album, Pharrell and Max Martin. How do these two producers’ tracks compare on the record? Is there one you like more? Do you think they flow well?

(Pharrell’s songs are: “blazed”, “the light is coming”, “R.E.M.”, “sweetener”, “successful”, “borderline”, “get well soon”.
Max Martin: “raindrops (an angel cried)”, “God is a woman”, “everytime”, “breathin”, “no tears left to cry”)

Mariel: Pharrell really takes the cake for me on this one. The only criticism I have is that his writing and production style is so recognizable that it feels more like his own work than hers, but regardless, I like those songs much better than the ones she wrote with Martin. Martin’s all feel pretty generic to me, and I usually skip over them when I listen (outside of “raindrops (an angel cried),” which is beautiful). I’m curious to know why she chose to work with two such distinct names – to me, it kind of makes the album feel like two EP’s put together. That’s how stylistically different they feel. So I think in answer to the question, each producer/co-writer’s separate sections flow well, but not necessarily in tandem with each other – I think this also means I may just like Pharrell’s songwriting better than Grande’s herself, as the ones that feel most diverse and interesting are the ones she did not have a hand in co-writing.

Matthew: It’s quite clear who had a hand in producing each of their respective tracks, because they have such distinct, and antithetical sounds. Pharrell was said before he wanted to encourage Grande to experiment, and while sometimes that experimentation loses its sense of direction, it’s still the stronger half of the album. But, Martin does just manage to hold his own here. “no tears left to cry” was a lacklustre first single. But, “everytime” and “breathin” are two of the strongest tracks on the album, for me at least. And, while the two different sounds can be jarring, it’s just further evidence that Grande is an artist willing to experiment.

Josh: Gotta go with Pharrell as well– having skimmed a lot of the critical reviews of the album, the broad consensus seems to be that he is one of the major MVPs here. But I’ll still give Max Martin credit for remaining an inventive and talented hit machine, a solid two decades after that much was initially established with “… Baby One More Time.”

Kelly: As I said before, I’m more a fan of her solo tracks, and I think there is a bit of a noticeable difference between the collaborations and the solo tracks, but I don’t think it doesn’t flow. Ariana remains the common thread between and both producers are unique enough to keep you interested without throwing you something completely confusing. There is a general feeling throughout that is evident in every song. That feeling is what keeps the flow.

Nicole: Martin, all the way, which comes as no surprise since I think Max Martin is an absolute genius. I feel like Martin does an incredible job at highlighting Grande’s voice and melodies and letting her have her own moment to shine, whereas Pharrell’s production style is so overwhelming that it somehow takes over the tracks. Also, I personally find some of his production elements like adding random adlibs and breaths to the background of songs really distracting. I think Pharrell is great for having such a distinct production style and making his tracks instantly recognisable, but it’s absolutely no surprise to me that they went with two Martin-produced tracks for the lead singles and that they both continue charting months after their release. I do enjoy Pharrell’s unique talent in allowing Grande to experiment and giving her the confidence of doing something different, but I still prefer Martin.

Ariana Grande has said that Sweetener feels like her DNA. What do you think it says of Grande as an artist right now?

Mariel: It seems like she’s a pop artist willing to take risks, and I appreciate that.

Matthew: I think it shows two things: that Grande is attached and involved in the making of her albums (which isn’t always the case for pop stars). And, it shows that she’s exploring her range as an artist.

Josh: I agreed that this album is “her DNA,” in the sense that all of the signature elements of her music are brought back in full flair. Sweetener proves that she will continue to test her vocal range and put out compelling pop music.  

Kelly: Sweetener is Ariana’s step in to Pop Diva territory. It’s who she is and this body of work is one that finally reflects that part of her.

Nicole: It shows Grande at her happiest and most confident as an artist. She’s unafraid of taking more creative control, writing about extremely personal things, exploring new sounds, and that’s honestly a beautiful and relieving thing to watch such a mainstream, established artist do.

What do you wish Sweetener had that it lacked? Or what do you think it could use less of?

Mariel: The only thing I could use less of is the Max Martin tracks, like I mentioned. Outside of that, I can’t really think of anything.

Matthew: I think Grande, like Lady Gaga, has a bit of an editing problem. And, a few of the tracks could have been cut. But, it’s a strong fourth album, and has left me wondering which direction her music will take next.

Josh: I don’t think it’s totally accurate to say it should have had fewer solo tracks– all of the songs here are good and there’s nothing that really screams “cutting room floor”– but a few more vocal collaborations might have been nice. Ariana’s duets are often standouts on all of her albums, and only having three of them this time around feels like too few. Although we should be happy to be hearing any new material at all from the long-dormant Missy Elliott, a mere 20-second cameo leaves one hungry for more.

Kelly: There is a reason she/her team made each and every choice on that album. I wouldn’t want more or less of anything – just excited to continue listening and discovering their reasons and choices which is already leading to record breaking numbers.

Nicole: I feel like a few of the songs go on for too long, which is weird since most don’t go over the 3:30 mark. I do feel like some drag, though, and I wish “pete davidson” was longer. And I would definitely scale back Pharrell’s production just a tad, but apart from that Sweetener really does its job, pleasing both old and new Grande fans and making everyone crave for a live show and more music.

:: stream/purchase Sweetener here ::

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