Traditionally, Grande has made music designed to be played in stadiums, confetti guns firing from every corner. Her last album, Dangerous Woman, was so unbelievably loud that half of the songs sounded like the “BRAAAM” noise from Hans Zimmer’s Inception score. And while none of it overpowered Grande, a theater kid who seems to relish hitting higher and higher notes, to always hear her fighting with her own production could get exhausting. But with Williams’s stripped-down production on Sweetener, we get to hear her really play with her voice; sing-talking on songs like “the light is coming,” giving breathy, layered vocals alongside Missy Elliott on the early ’00s R&B throwback “borderline,” or imitating her idol Imogen Heap on her cover of “Goodnight and Go.” 

Given the themes of Sweetener, you wouldn’t want to hide it with an avalanche of speaker-frying synths and warbled power vocals anyway. It might be tempting to read this Grande album as a toned-down response to a hard year in the wake of the Manchester bombing attack at her own concert in 2017, but Sweetener shines as a record about Grande’s very public, very gushy, newfound love. “I love you,” Grande sings on “R.E.M.” “Who starts a conversation like that? Nobody, but I do.” When you hear Grande sing, “you get high and call on the regular, I get weak and fall like a teenager” on the sole Martin-produced standout “everytime,” you know these are not the kind of love songs that will soundtrack future sultry romantic dramas. This is cute, strictly early 20s shit.


As a 25-year-old pop star with youthful tastes (listen, if she can make cat-ears work for her year-round, good for her) and a largely PG-13 sound, critics have long wondered, as is typical when it comes to child stars, how Ariana Grande would “grow up” in the industry. Dangerous Woman was positioned as Grande finally taking the next logical step as a young woman pop singer, releasing aggressively Sexy music with a capital S. But listening to Sweetener, its longterm charting potential still elusive at this point, the risks Grande takes here are perhaps the most grown-up thing she’s ever done. And sometimes the part when you break free from the past, when it finally happens in real life, doesn’t always include a bass drop.