As its album cover suggests, Ariana Grande’s world was turned upside down following the tragic 2017 bombing outside of her Manchester tour stop. But on her first album since the attack, she didn’t let her past define her, and she didn’t dwell on what her future may hold, either. Instead, Sweetener captured a very specific time in the life of a 25-year-old pop star -- from an unprecedented national tragedy to a whirlwind celebrity romance (including a spontaneous engagement that she broke off after four months). And while most fans couldn’t possibly relate to her extraordinary circumstances, Grande still ended the year seeming more approachable and human than ever. (More popular than ever, too: Sweetener had the largest streaming week ever for a pop album by a female artist with 126.7 million on-demand audio streams in its first week).
Heavily inspired by the exhilarating early days of her relationship with Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson -- which was endlessly documented on social media -- the album itself plays out like one lengthy Instagram story, soundtracking her life in real time. All the while, she swapped sky-high runs for low-registered “yuhs” and favored velvety R&B (with an assist from Pharrell’s frisky beats) over the swaggering synths of her past dance-pop bangers. She even titled a charming interlude “pete davidson”, explaining on Twitter: “i love his name and i love him / music lasts forever... so i want my love for him and how i feel to be a part of that.”
Although her relationship with Davidson guided much of the conversation about the album (while informing sexplicit lines like “I like the way you lick the bowl” on its title track), Sweetener is bookended by two sparse ballads that offer a different kind of intimacy. Opener “raindrops (an angel cried)”, is a chilling a cappella take on Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' "An Angel Cried," while on the cool-breeze closer “get well soon,” Grande sings about self-care and learning to “unfollow fear” in light of her own post-traumatic anxiety. She's at her most emotionally raw on the set when she's saying nothing at all: “get well soon” ends with 40 seconds of silence, bringing the track’s runtime to 5:22 — a reference to the date of the Manchester attack.
As debate over the lifespan of the album format continues, what’s certain is that it’s becoming increasingly rare to see a major artist craft such a cohesive and personal body of work. And yet, Sweetener succinctly archived this pivotal period in Grande’s life the way only a proper album could -- through her grief and anxiety, both in and out of love, the LP offered a front-row seat to it all, allowing her fans to see that it’s possible to stumble and hurt and still emerge stronger and more self-assured than ever. Her life may have been flipped upside down, but she’s always been on top. -- L.H.