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Ariana Grande
Sweetener Grace Barber-Plentie , August 29th, 2018 14:05

Ariana collabs with Pharrell, Nicki and Missy. The results are weird, but not weird enough

In my time as a pop-music enthusiast, I’ve found it (relatively) easy to divide the genre up into two categories: Bangers and Not-Bangers. A banger is easily identifiable - it’s a song that sounds good when you sing it in the shower, dance around your room to it or hear it in the club. One of the strongest purveyors of Bangers is Ariana Grande, who for years now has been making strong, reliable pop songs and finding fans across the globe thanks to her angelic vocals and catchy seven word choruses

But what happens when an artist like Grande, queen of the pop Banger, turns away from making the type of catchy music we’re used to and enters the world of the Not-Banger - weird pop music that’s aurally overwhelming and makes you think about its production rather than want to dance? Well, you get an album like Sweetener.

The two lead singles, ‘no tears left to cry’ and ‘the light is coming’ (the latter especially), definitely fall into the Not-Bangers camp. They’re not the instantly catchy Grande we’re used to from songs like ‘Problem’ and ‘Greedy’. The bait-and-switch of ‘no tears left to cry’, starting as a soulful ballad before becoming what should be every sad girl’s karaoke song, and the layered, disorientating sample in ‘the light is coming’ - these are songs you want to listen to, strip apart, but they’re not catchy from that first hook.

Pharrell Williams produces six of the songs here, including ‘blazed’ which he features on, and they are the most interesting - it seems that he is helping Grande take her music to a new place. As well as ‘the light is coming’, Williams’ production gets weird as hell on album standouts like ‘successful’, oozing with braggadocio as Grande lists her luxuries, and ‘R.E.M’, previously offered to Beyoncé but given a uniquely Williams-spin with bouncy, off-kilter beats. ‘sweetener’ is just plain strange, beginning as what sounds like a sentimental ballad before the tempo is warped, building to a chorus of Grande belting out instructions for exactly how she wants it in the bedroom that are reminiscent of the instructions to the children’s game Bop-It and overlaid with what sounds eerily like the noise of a Skype call. Weird pop has been done before, but maybe not for a star like this. It sounds like none of it should work but god… it really does.

But Grande’s new sound, the Williams-produced Not-Bangers, only make up half of the album. These standout tracks are interspersed between standard pop tracks, including the Missy Elliott collaboration ‘borderline’, which is also produced by Pharrell but just sounds like Neptunes-lite compared to ‘the light is coming’ and ‘successful’. If you’re going give us a new sound and focus, don’t just tease us with half the songs on an album - go big or go home.

That’s not to say that the Bangers on Sweetener are bad - it’s more that they belong in previous era of Grande and they spoil the flow between songs. Sweetener may not be the dawning of a new age for Ariana but it could be a step towards somewhere weird and wonderful.