Last fall, Ariana Grande was having trouble breathing. “When I got home from tour, I had really wild dizzy spells,” she said in a recent Elle cover story. “I’ve always had anxiety, but it had never been physical before. There were a couple of months straight where I felt so upside down.” It was an understandable reaction to the most jarring and tragic experience of the 25-year-old Grande’s life: On May 22, 2017, just after she’d finished performing at the Manchester Arena on her Dangerous Woman Tour, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive, killing 22 people and injuring more than 500. It was the U.K.’s deadliest terrorist attack in more than a decade, made all the more disturbing by the fact many of her fans—including some of those who would end up dead or injured—were young girls.
“Get Well Soon,” the closing track on Grande’s excellent new album Sweetener, is five minutes and 22 seconds long. It didn’t take long for Grande’s fans (who call themselves Arianators and are used to scrutinizing her every emoji) to connect the dots: 5/22 was the date of the Manchester bombing, and the 40 or so seconds of quiet that bring the song to its meaningful duration serve as a kind of “moment of silence for the victims.” But the song itself is an intimate exploration of Grande’s anxiety; the sparse, weightless track finds her harmonizing with the chattering voices in her head. “My life is so controlled by the what-ifs,” she sings, while another Ariana responds, “Girl, what’s wrong with you? Come back down.” When an Arianator—who’d already renamed their Twitter handle @gettingwellsoon before the song was even released—asked about what inspired the track, Grande replied in candid lowercase, “i felt like i was floating for like 3 months last year & not in a nice way.”
Profiling Grande for Time earlier this year, the writer Sam Lansky pinpointed the strange crossroads at which the pop star found herself before releasing her next album: “Now, even though she had nothing to do with the attack, she had become central to the narrative in a way that made it inexorable. And yet what had she really lost, compared with so many others? People had lost children, parents, partners, friends. To make art that was explicitly about it would look exploitative. But to ignore it would be disingenuous.”
Somehow, Grande has navigated this predicament with balletic grace. Pulling equally from the peaks and valleys of her very public life, she’s made a record that’s more intimate, innovative, and sonically adventurous than anything she’s ever released before. It’s a bold statement of exploration and experimentation at a time when so many of her peers are content to play it safe. Against all odds, Ariana Grande’s Sweetener is this year’s pop album to beat.
The record’s first oh-shit moment is “Blazed,” a grade-A Pharrell Williams production that calls back to the spirit of Justin Timberlake’s “Like I Love You,” but with a featherlight twist that’s pure Ariana. Williams’s production is the dominant sound on Sweetener—he produced seven of its 15 tracks, and most of the first half. Although Pharrell has never produced any of her solo music before, it’s a winning partnership; he lets her wander enough that her distinct personality shines through in a way her previous singles haven’t quite been able to showcase. Sweetener feels like an homage to the most joyful, expertly crafted pop of the late ’90s and early aughts—Destiny’s Child, Timberlake, the Neptunes, and, yes, Mariah. It’s a defiant record, chronicling both the difficulty and necessity of choosing to be happy. At its most transcendent it is music for floating, in the nicest possible way.
Grande has a lovely voice, and in the past her music has sometimes felt like a vehicle to remind you of that simple fact and little else. Her 2013 debut album, Yours Truly, was a collection of pretty but relatively faceless Babyface-produced R&B; her breakthrough follow-up, My Everything, had some irresistible pop smashes like “Break Free” and “Problem,” but also felt bogged down with generic piano ballads, torch songs, and other old-fashioned exercises of vocal prowess. Building on the more mature pop of her third album, Dangerous Woman, Sweetener shows Grande evolving well beyond “just another pretty voice” and toward an artist with something interesting and even sometimes intelligible to say.
Grande has earned such a reputation for mumbling her lyrics that the critic Rich Juzwiak once compiled an entire post of misheard Ariana Grande lyrics (“Havin’ a clown / Got no weight / I’m a shutter / I should be Liza / And realize that I cough”). She’s definitely a tongue-tied, head-in-the-clouds type, but the difference is that Sweetener uses this personality trait to a greater effect. Take the ephemeral “R.E.M” (one of the best songs on the album), on which her words tumble out in a vulnerable, oops-did-I-just-say-too-much cascade of vulnerability: “Excuse me, um, I love you / I know that’s not the way to start a conversation, trouble.” The song is a tug-of-war between bliss and apprehension, capturing perfectly the dizzy feeling of falling in love so fast that half of you is waiting for the other shoe to drop. “You’re such a dream to me,” she sings, and then mid-reverie she interrupts herself: “Does this end?” The surest snooze button is to hit repeat.
Another heavenly and compulsively listenable highlight is the title track—stuttering and serene, it’s basically the trap-pop Pachelbel’s Canon. As far as “Independent Women Part III” contenders go, I would gladly trade the grandiosity of “God Is a Woman” for the subtle swag of “Successful,” another Pharrell-produced gem. It’s a flex, for sure (“It feels so good to be so young and have this fun and be successful”) but the song has a lived-in quality that makes it feel like an appropriate soundtrack for more ordinary moments of success, too: “I just got some real good news from work, boy / It’s a surprise, surprise.” The revolution will not be won by songs comparing women to deities or imagery of a woman giving birth to planet earth between her legs—just give us a bop to dance to when we get a hard-earned raise.
I like Sweetener’s singles “God Is a Woman” and “No Tears Left to Cry” better in the context of the album than I did when I first heard them, but that’s the rub of making a genuinely forward-thinking pop record that dares to dream beyond the confines of radio: The best songs aren’t the singles, to paraphrase a guy who should know. Still, Grande is in the perfect moment of her career to take these sorts of risks—she is still, astonishingly, the third-most-followed person on Instagram on the planet, and she has 3.2 million more Twitter followers than President Trump. And oh, how she must relish that fact: Unlike some other pop stars of her stature, Grande has been vocal in her opposition to Trump and in her support of gun control, especially in the wake of the Manchester attack. When an interviewer asked her if her stances have resulted in backlash, she replied, “Of course! There’s a lot of noise when you say anything about anything. But if I’m not going to say it, what’s the fucking point of being here? Not everyone is going to agree with you, but that doesn’t mean I’m just going to shut up and sing my songs. … [I want to] not only help people and comfort them, but also [to] push people to think differently, raise questions, and push their boundaries mentally.”
Far from silencing Grande, the Manchester tragedy seems to have reinvigorated her sense of purpose. And also, as her mom said in a recent interview: “She loves a bit more fearlessly than she did before.”
If I could travel back in time to two years ago, I would probably just go around whispering in people’s ears, “Ariana Grande will someday record a song called ‘Pete Davidson.’” I would tell them nothing else about 2018, because all of the other surprises are bad. Only this one is good.
I doubt I am alone in this progression of emotions, but my reaction to the fact that Ariana Grande and SNL comedian Pete Davidson had gotten engaged after several weeks of dating has moved from shock, to puzzlement, to an alarmingly deep and profound worry for both of them that quite suddenly gave way to a euphoric feeling of affection much more genuine than I feel for pretty much any other celebrity couple. Maybe it will implode spectacularly. Maybe they are terrible for each other. Maybe it’s all a sham and has been all along. But the message they have been telegraphing all summer—that love is unpredictable and weird and goofy enough to make you do things like get a tattoo of bunny ears or title a song on your album “Pete Davidson”—has felt like a breath of fresh air, and somehow more stirring and honest than most other celebrity relationships seem. On the day Sweetener came out, I was at a dear friend’s bachelorette party, and on the way to our destination she insisted that we play “Pete Davidson” in the limo. We wished them, and everybody else, to experience that kind of glorious, idiotic love that inspires you to grin and throw caution to the wind with a complete disregard for what the rest of the world thinks. That feeling is living somewhere between the song “Pete Davidson” itself and its incongruous but absolutely perfect title.
Most of the songs on Sweetener were likely written before Grande met Davidson (and there are definitely a few songs that seem inspired by the end of her relationship with Mac Miller, which she has described as “toxic”). But at its best, Sweetener does feel like a sonic snapshot of a whirlwind romance, as well as the kind of daring openness, vulnerability, and self-acceptance that usually precedes those sorts of experiences. Perhaps the reason it feels like such a revelation is that it is coming at a time when many other pop stars are trying to out-sad one another, or pad their albums with so many inessential songs that they don’t seem to be saying much at all. In a pop landscape that feels clouded in a numbing, formless haze, Sweetener is a blast of cool, clean air—a much-needed ode to joy.