Being okay is one of the best things you can set out to achieve in life, and with her fourth album, Sweetener, Ariana Grande is letting us know she's doing just fine. "The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole," goes a line in The Light Is Coming, her collaboration with Nicki Minaj. As simple as it is, it is a show of defiance against tragedy on an album that celebrates the art of being okay.
Kicking the traditional pop-banger format to one side, Grande restrains her normally soaring voice, letting it meander through the trippy beats provided by Pharrell Williams and act as a comfort on thoughtful ballads produced by the rising Swedish powerhouse producer Ilya.
The maturity and ambition of this record send Grande on a different path from the one she strutted down as a Nickelodeon star. Opening with a short cover of The Four Season's An Angel Cried, Grande presents grief and recovery openly and honestly. Intertwining this grief with upbeat R&B songs like Blazed, a Williams-produced song that runs and bounces like a N.E.R.D classic, and the very sensual God Is a Woman, Grande doesn't box off her experiences into separate categories. What happened in May last year, when 22 people died in the bombing of her Manchester Arena concert, has changed her perspective forever. Instead of simply being a sad record or a survival record, Sweetener realistically balances the good with the bad.
“When life deals us cards – make everything taste like it is salt – then you come through like the sweetener you are, to bring the bitter taste to a halt,” she sings on the title track, focusing on the glimmers of hope that act as a lifeline when the rest of the world is glitching. In the aftermath of the bombing the 25-year-old has shown nothing but class and consideration, while evidently figuring out how to move on with her life without dismissing the impact of this devastating event.
By pairing up songs like Breathin, a ballad that uses a 1980s guitar solo so beautifully, and No Tears Left to Cry, the album's jutting and upbeat lead single, Grande offers a glimpse into the self-care she's been practising. The repetition of Breathin is a mantra for soothing daily anxieties, and No Tears Left to Cry promises that even if you can't see beyond the cloud of sadness, things will feel normal again but... we can't rush it. She explained on Twitter that Get Well Soon, the album's closing track, is about her own anxiety. Battling with reality, she felt as if she was having an out-of-body experience, and couldn't snap out of it for three months. "My life is so controlled by the what-ifs," she sings, encouraging people to reach out to anyone in trouble. The song runs for five minutes and 22 seconds, a subtle tribute to the victims of the bombing that happened on May 22nd, 2017.
Grande's new relationship with the Saturday Night Live cast member Pete Davidson adds a lightness to the record. Goodnight n Go is gentle reworking of an Imogen Heap song that toys around with the desires and obsession from the early stages of a relationship. On Pete Davidson – yup, he gets his own song title – she gushes about how happy her own personal sweetener makes her. This is potentially Grande's defining album as an artist. She proves that to be best you can be, all you have to be is okay.