Published Aug 18, 2018It's hard to separate today's pop releases from the media rollout that precedes them. A prime example, Ariana Grande's new album Sweetener is seen through the prism of her highly publicized romance with a Saturday Night Live cast member — accentuated by the fact that a song is unequivocally titled "Pete Davidson" — and, of course, the mourning that followed the tragic Manchester shootings.
Yet, no matter how current her themes, musically, Sweetener may be Ariana Grande's nostalgia album. An obvious throwback, it refers back to the pop of the early aughts by divas — and obvious inspirations — like Gwen Stefani and Britney Spears. More than a return to basics, it's probably Grande's way of recalling a simpler, less troubled time.
Producing almost half of the record, Pharrell Williams tries to reignite his characteristic enthusiasm from that period with varying degrees of success, while Swedish hitmakers Max Martin and ILYA are simply asleep at the wheel. Ultimately, beatmaker Tommy "TBHits" Brown outshines the veterans, co-producing two of the record's more engaging tracks — "Better Off" and "Goodnight n Go" — which are inexplicably relegated to the end of the record. Those songs manage to accomplish what the rest of the album attempts: bringing a new fire to pop-R&B's familiar formulas.
Order Grande's Sweetener fan box via Umusic here. (Republic Records)