Under the Influence: Notes on Sweetener


Ariana Grande is the most contemporary Pop creation of the 21st century.  There is no artist who possesses greater ease amidst the exhilarating, mind-boggling movement and speed of the here and now, the preposterous present which gleams itself beautiful and maddening at once.  There is no artist who coolly communicates to her audiences, analysts, and abstractors with such didactic warmth and simplistic depth, choosing the most immaculate letters, language, and leaning as if directing armies or subjects.  There is no artist who conveys in style and in work the cheerful awareness of a century just setting upon its heels, kissing the collision of genres, cultures, and philosophies unabashed and wild.  It is an effortless, seamless majesty exuded, conveying a being capable of any and every whim, exacting a person both of and outside our imagination.  At once, with that impossible voice and magnetic ponytail, Ariana is an amphitheater angel, shojo soulstress, choral conqueror, and modern maestro, engulfing and embodying environs typically uncrossed and unmeasured.  A breathing encyclopedia of stage, song, and slang, she is the girl-genius-next-door, incredibly familiar yet ecstatically untouchable.  Others may bridge gaps and stitch holes and align spaces on the periphery, yet there is simply no one navigating through the current, anxious, tide-shifting landscape of Pop quite as confidently, surely, and masterfully.

Such an innate grasp on the millennial soundscape already proved spellbinding on her third record, Dangerous Woman.  Designed as a loose dissertation on the sexual and romantic odysseys of young womanhood and released during one of the most exciting musical years of the decade, the album luxuriated in its keen, coming-of-age resonance, allowing the polished synth-laden perfection of super-producer Max Martin to elevate her woes, worries, and wonders into that of high drama.  Within those state-of-the-art confines, Ariana transformed and established herself into the signature siren of her generation, bringing to fore a sense of maturity and growth without forsaking amusement and vitality.  In the same token, because Dangerous Woman burst with such modernity, it appeared she had inexplicably captured the entire half-decade too impeccably, pushing her to a space for possible, comfortable doom.  However, with Sweetener, her sly, sublime, and spectacular fourth album of froth and finality, Ariana has gleefully escaped such dismal trappings, opting entirely for a new, fresher palette which to embark upon.  It is with Sweetener in which the idyll is married to the innovative, in which the twinkle of today is replaced by the ferocity of the future.


First and foremost, it takes a certain supreme vocalist to allow themselves shared importance with ambiance; history is consumed with chanteuses whom deliberately choose simple, sparse, nonthreatening productions in order to accentuate their brilliance and mastery.  Yet, on Sweetener, by way of the incomparable vanguard Pharrell Williams, Ariana is absolutely thrilled to be altered into an agent of change.  Eschewing the kind of monumental, big-hearted balladry of which she was clearly invented, she marinates in radical hypnosis and meditation, sauntering amidst sedation, digging deeper under the avant-garde influence.  It is an act of diva defiance and rejuvenation, an exploration of an artist who is chiefly aware of their strengths without any desire to force or strain such.  Instead reigns a perverse confidence and knowledge, something magnificent and wildly independent, glowing in its passions and uncertainties, evolving into an acute dynamism to push boundaries and discredit limits.  Sweetener is Ariana’s most adventurous, her most psychedelic record – the kind of wistful, whimsical album that toggles and boggles, that is just as mind-altering as the substances it so greatly mimics.

How else could one feel but serene and spiritual against the rumbling, tumbling bass rushing in medias res upon the mirrored ball tenderness of “Blazed,” its smooth, classical slice of live lounge spontaneity veering simultaneously into magnetic ecstasy and terrifying bewilderment?  How else could one feel but fortuitous and faded against the ultrachill, ultramellow snaps and hiccups cascading throughout the wintry, music-box glamour of “R.E.M.” as if intoxicated constellations illuminating the dreariest of night skies?  How else could one feel but enthralled and entranced against the skittering, tittering throb crawling across “Goodnight and Go,” first in heady, hardcore heartbeats and then exploding into a spectral wave of complete euphoria and exuberance?  How else could one feel but buoyant and blissful against the sun-drenched, funk-laden stroll of “Successful,” its stumping spotlit sublimity simmering with a lush, dancehall luxury?  Within Sweetener’s gingered confines, there is an ambitious aim to exude a peace, calm, and harmony, to pacify and soothe; even aboard the album’s busiest and most complex productions, there remains that dignified layer of restraint and lull, keeping one constantly in a state of marvelous, dreamy bewitchment.


Never is this truer than on “The Light Is Coming,” the strangest yet most captivating of her experiments.  Commencing with immense abrasion – a callous, unsettling thud slapping underneath the distorted voice of a politician reaching his breaking point – it is unlike anything she has ever created, scaling into a noirish, Dadaist netherworld with its earth-shattering crushes and jovial marathons.  One feels both accosted and assuaged, drunk on the madness teeming at every edge yet somehow blanketed in its grandeur, knowingly reaching stratospheres outside of logic and reason with a sense of anxiety and anticipation.  There are beeps and bumps, squeaks and squawks, twinkles and tingles – each of them rushing at full-speed, uncaring of their inevitable collisions, perhaps even enraptured by the mere prospect.  It is that reckless abandon which gives it such gusto and gild, which locks the body and mind into states of shock and steadiness; there is a blueprint of tomorrow within those four spellbinding minutes, preparing us for things to come, epitomizing commercial music’s highest aspirations.

Yet, if Sweetener is undoubtedly her most psychedelic, surreal album, then it is also her most soulful.  Vocally, Ariana has always been an apprentice of the most imperious, taking cues from those ethereal, eternal goddesses whose sprightly growls and torrential murmurs often render the spirit catatonic beyond recognition.  She bathed in their brightness, she soaked in their sentiment, she steeped in their succulence – she was a descendent prepared for a path typified by lone microphones and little black dresses.  However, Ariana’s innate colloquial modernity of delivering words with a studied, slang-ridden drawl has always pushed her into avenues elsewhere, and upon her latest work, she doubles-down on this millennial poetry, bringing her velveted voice down a few notches and exercising a sense of wonder never before witnessed.  Within each song, as she rises and falls, Ariana is enraptured by her own joy and contemplation, repackaging the lyricism in every unbridled wave and bawl so that it feels almost improvised and preternatural.  In one of her contemporaries’ hands, it would all fade into trickery, gimmickry, and falsehoods.  Yet, building upon this styling as the album tickles through its 47 minutes, this enchanted crooner exemplifies that mixture of church and carnal most sacred within Pop; in her hands, we feel as if there is no difference between the heavens and the bedpost.


Take the dewy, gooey titular track, which curiously oscillates between smirking seduction, nocturnal deliverance, and doo-wop ratchetry with refined splendor, her “make me so ‘Ohh!’” equal parts holy and orgasmic.  Or the brilliantly devout doublespeak of “God Is A Woman,” coming off as if one of the most sensuous sermons one has ever given at the pulpit, its hollow, goosebump-inducing outro ornamented by a haunting, thrilling choir, a sense of doom and glory in rhapsodic symmetry.  Or even take the rapturous, intergalactic opera of “No Tears Left to Cry,” an ode to liberation and freedom showered in gorgeous swirls, shouts, and calls not dissimilar to those found in sanctuaries and Sunday schools.  Fascinatingly enough, however, the album’s most incredible and impressive vocal does not follow such a pattern: instead, “Get Well Soon” is a poignant throwback to the keenest of 1950s pop, invoking malt shops and sock hops at the same moment it unfolds into a confession of fear and destruction.  It is a remarkable rush, wallowing in its self-deprecation and self-doubt, unshakable in its affirmation and optimism, visceral, callous, eruptive in its gentility.  Here, the soulful renditions reach a maximum peak, an effective climax, guiding us from valley to hilltop to mountaintop to valley again, channeling the mind’s incorrigible penchant for diversion and denial in the most sensible and nourishing tone.  Here, she is leaving us with something to hold onto.  Here, she is leaving us with something to change our lives.

And it is that sense of respect and wisdom which Sweetener best embodies.  It is a work of art birthed from a being still reeling from catastrophe, abundant in its confidence and direction, though masterfully entangled with disorder and respite.  One feels the overwhelming power of love and romance, of adoration and admiration, of promise and commitment.  One feels the beautiful, almost desperate necessity to expound all truths, epiphanies, discoveries, and affections.  Were it caked in darker, gloomier hues with colder, more somber dispositions, one may go away from such an album feeling the weight of the world upon their shoulders, feeling as if there were no true hope at all.  Yet, with Ariana’s awesome arrangement of avant-garde majesty, we are instead struck by the possibilities of catharsis, of resolution, of mirth.  With Sweetener, we are instead struck by the possibilities of beginning again.

About Marsalis

poet of pop.
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