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Albums Of The Year: Sweetener And The Evolution Of Ariana Grande

The album's melding of expertly executed love and sex bops with coping through hardships is rarely approached in pop music

There’s a line on Sweetener that sits on its very last song, “get well soon.” On an otherwise timeless, delicate ballad about the familiar concept of leaning on your friends and getting out of your own head, there’s a point where she forcefully commands: “Unfollow fear and just say, ‘You are blocked.’” I think about this line a lot. Most artists want to make something that stands the test of time, but here, by singing about a universal challenge we can all identify with and boiling it down to a line you can put in your Instagram bio, Ariana Grande makes it so decidedly not timeless.

Of course, that “familiar concept”—and all of Sweetener—is deeply transformed by the past year-and-change that Grande has had: the May 2017 Manchester bombing at her own concert, this May’s public breakup with Mac Miller, and his subsequent overdose in September, and her union and engagement to Pete Davidson (though she gives him a loving tribute on a track in his name, the two would break up in November and directly inspire her biggest hit to date, “thank u, next”). Unfortunately, nothing forces growth and maturity quite like unanticipated tragedy, and though Ariana’s experiences were multiplied by having to grow in front of the entire world, she’s still had to get up and face it like the rest of us.

“no tears left to cry,” the single best pop song of the year, is a tribute to release, to the exact moment you stop wallowing, a stuttering disco garage jam wherein Grande echoes affirmations through space (“I’m lovin’, I’m livin’, I’m pickin’ it up”). It’s just the tip of Sweetener, an album that fuses her earlier predispositions for perfectly executed balladry and radio-primed pop with some classic Pharrell Williams productions — beats like the ones on “blazed” and “R.E.M.,” recall some of his best peak-Neptunes work à la early-2000s Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears — but throws in plenty of trap, the sound of the moment. This works best on “successful,” which bounces by with a shimmery first minute before suddenly dropping into a catchy trap/R&B concoction that never looks back.

Pharrell is Sweetener’s bedrock, but her work outside his universe is where the the album is often its strongest, particularly on the Ilya-produced “god is a woman” and “breathin,” both perfect examples of the album’s two worlds. Where “god” is a slinky, churning feminist anthem, “breathin” openly addresses the anxiety Grande grappled with in the aftermath of the Manchester bombing. Where most of its first half is expertly executed love and sex fare, the bulk of its second openly deals with mental health and coping through hardships in a way rarely approached in pop music.

The last inarguably, definitively good mainstream pop album might be Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream, or possibly Taylor Swift’s 1989, and it feels like Sweetener has stepped into that realm: fully realized bodies of work that are confident, experiential, so fully of the time that they become timeless in their way. On Perry’s greatest record to-date, oddball tracks like “California Gurls,” “Firework” and “E.T.” still feel like this decade’s apex of just how crazy fun pop music could feel if we let it, and Swift, freed from her Nashville ways, helped set off a wave of modern artists wrapping their personal lives within sonic concepts (records like Beyonce’s Lemonade and Justin Timberlake’s Man of the Woods, thickly themed records deeply tied to their public perceptions, would soon follow). If our political climate is any indication, these are trying times all around, and Grande here has created an album that encapsulates the full spectrum of how one copes with tragedy in 2018, while nudging pop music forward into some of its both darkest and brightest realms.

And “better off,” driven by Hit-Boy, may be the single greatest thing Ariana Grande has done: a somber, sagging ode to the pitiful feeling of letting someone go, a song about doing the right thing for yourself when doing the right thing absolutely sucks. It's a miserable effort to find peace; her voice hardly ever rises above a hush, and where the song’s biggest kiss-offs — "I know I’m a hard one to please," "I’d rather your body than half of your heart" — would easily sound empowering on a “thank u, next,” here they just feel like shit, like the absolute worst truths you never wanted to realize.

The best parts of Sweetener exist in the pit of this swirling well of uncertain feelings in uncertain times. Just as success and contentment and happiness are fleeting, so is heartbreak, insecurity, and the trauma of the unexpected. Most of the time we have in this place, we're often sad, even when we could choose to be happy, and afraid, even at our most confident. But we can still feel free, invincible, sexy in the face of the unknown, if we want; we can still be a bit hopeful, even when we haven't yet found our way through the darkness.