Ariana Grande's 'Sweetener': Deeper than Bubblegum Pop?

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Ariana Grande in the music video for "God is a woman." (VEVO)

Ariana Grande is back with a brand new album, and KQED Music Editor Nastia Voynovskaya and KQED Pop Editor Emmanuel Hapsis spent a majority of the day sharing their feelings about it. Tired of shouting over their shared cubicle wall, they took to this cyber forum to let it all out.

Nastia Voynovskaya: Hey, Emmanuel! Do you believe god is a woman?

Emmanuel Hapsis: I do! She has yet to answer my most persistent prayer, which goes a little something like this—What do we want? Matriarchy! When do we want it? Well, a few millennia ago would've been swell, but now is good too—but she did deliver a new Ariana Grande album in the midst of this pop diva drought, so I still believe!

Do you consider yourself an Arianator (that's apparently what her fans call themselves, in addition to "tiny elephants" for some reason)?

NV: You know, I didn't til her new album, Sweetener, but I'm starting to come around. Ariana Grande has always been a little too basic, a little too Disney for me. With her last project, Dangerous Woman, I think she was really trying to prove how grown up she was by singing these super sexual lyrics. But on Sweetener, she's clever and insightful while still having a ton of fun. You can feel the intensity of her whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson. I love how she captures that early-20s, my-world-is-on-fire sort of love.


EH: Meanwhile, I've been bopping to her perfect pop songs (major shout out to Swedish wizard Max Martin) since her second album, My Everything. I even like her dirty holiday EP, Christmas and Chill. Anyone who can get me to sing along to a lyric like "You'll be my drummer boy and I'm the only drum that you gonna play" has star quality.

I agree that she was really trying to shake her Disney image with Dangerous Woman. I mean, it's right there in the title, and on the cover, which pictures her wearing a fetish-y latex mask (but with bunny ears, of course, 'cause she always likes to keep it cute). And with Sweetener, her evolution has less to do with content and more to do with genre and style.

So much of the new album has Pharrell's fingerprints all over it, and those songs feel very 2000s R&B to me, which is new territory for her. I want to love the new direction so badly, but I am struuuuggling to get on board. It just feels kind of hollow to me, like they're demos that need another session to complete. And some of the decisions Pharrell makes as a producer are downright puzzling. Like on "the light is coming," why have a sample of a man yelling about Obamacare in the background for the entire song? Ack! I could go on and on about why his seven tracks don't impress me much; suffice it to say, this has been my experience listening to them so far:

NV: I'm a big rap and R&B fan so I really like the funkier sensibility Pharrell brought to Sweetener. Granted, these weren't his most groundbreaking beats. "the light is coming" totally reminds me of his recent N.E.R.D. productions, like "Lemon" and "Don't Do It." That said, I enjoy almost everything Pharrell produces because it has this really fun bounce to it, with hints of retro soul and funk and a liiiiittle dash of Talking Heads-type dance rock. I think overall, it made Ariana sound a little more alternative and hipper, and more in line with my sensibilities as someone who's super into artists like SZA and Rihanna. It reminds me of when Rihanna switched up her sound from commercial pop to alt-R&B with ANTI in 2015.

EH: Ooo, I've never thought of it like that. I promise to hold SZA in my mind instead of Danity Kane B-side the next time I give the Pharrell songs a whirl. Ultimately, I think I just need to forgive him for having to hear "Happy" everywhere for months and months.

NV: OK, so let's talk about the track "pete davidson." How do you feel about this current trend of celebrity PDA on wax? Cardi B name-dropped Offset what feels like 85 times in "Bartier Cardi" (really it was 16). Nicki Minaj and Eminem both fueled dating rumors by mentioning each other in their recent features. (Eminem referred to the two of them as "the queen and her husband" on "Majesty." I die!) What are your thoughts on female pop stars mentioning their IRL boos in their tracks when their male counterparts seem to be singing and rapping about women in a more abstract sense, with the exception of Eminem?

EH: Have we learned nothing from J.Lo naming a song "Dear Ben" in honor of Ben Affleck? Apparently not! Part of me wants to celebrate that feeling you mentioned earlier of being young and crazy in love and doing wild things to show your affection, even though you know deep down it's probably not forever. But your question gets at why this trend upsets me; it's so often a one-way street. Offset couldn't even crack a smile while Cardi was struggling to land jokes at the VMAs, let alone rep for her 16 times in a song. When we solve the wage gap, we need to get to work on this ride or die gap!

In the particular case of "pete davidson," if Ariana wants to rush-produce a one minute and 14-second song for her new man, go for it. Like a tramp stamp, we will all pretend it never happened a few years from now.

Are there other Sweetener songs that are jumping out at you?

NV: Wow, I completely forgot about J.Lo and Ben Affleck! Ride or die gap is right! I listen to these songs with a slight cringe, like, "You better be sure about this, girl." How terrible would it be if your best songs (that you have to keep performing on tour over and over) ended up being about your ex? Not to get too speculative, but this kind of extreme, really fast young love can burn out because both people don't really know themselves or each other yet. There's risk involved. But I'm rooting for Ariana and Pete, they seem so smitten and I hope it stands the test of time. You can feel the love she has for him through that epic crescendo of strings. The instrumentation is so beautiful and a sweet reflection of how she must feel inside.

EH: And if it doesn't work out, the best albums tend to be breakup ones. Just sayin'!

NV: Another track that I love from Sweetener is "successful." It's a subtle, unassuming banger that I think young women really need to hear. It's all about being young and having fun and enjoying making your own money and being independent. That's a vibe I resonate with, and I put it on my personal playlist that I use to get inspired. What about you?

EH: "breathin" is THAT GIRL for me. It builds in such a wonderful way and keeps raising the stakes. The Castro bars aren't ready. Neither are my neighbors. (And neither was iTunes apparently; the song flew to #1 right after the album dropped, despite not being an official single yet.)

I also love the complete randomness of her covering an Imogen Heap song with "goodnight and go." And I gotta give it to "sweetener" for inspiring these two hilarious memes:

NV: Love it! OK, so before we sign off, there's one more thing I have to get off my chest: WHY has no one on Nicki Minaj's team told her that Chun-Li from Street Fighter is not a villain? She says it in her "Chun-Li" song and repeats it on her feature on "the light is coming." This inaccuracy is driving me nuts.

EH: Maybe she spent more time playing Mortal Kombat? Everyone knows Chun-Li is a hero who fights crime and protects innocents without ever messing up her perfect hair buns!

OK, I'm about to really reach here, but see if you can hang with me for this: Nicki believes people are getting on their "f-in keyboards and mak[ing] her the bad guy, Chun Li." Like you said, that's not a thing because that character isn't a bad guy. So maybe we can see this bit of confusion as a metaphor for how her paranoia leads to her misunderstanding of people's intentions. Maybe her anxiety about being de-throned twists people with good intentions into "haters" and Nick runs with it (see: her entire history with Cardi B or Lil' Kim or Remy Ma). I only got as far as Psych 101, but that theory seems legit enough? Or Nicki just doesn't think hard enough about her lyrics. Either or!

NV: Either or! Probably both! I can feel her anxiety about defending her crown, but I think we really should be celebrating, cultivating and encouraging a multiplicity of female artists instead of working under the assumption that there can only be one queen. Which is why I'm enjoying Sweetener. Its bubbly, femme-centric expressions of happiness are really contagious!

EH: Yes! Maybe that's what Ariana and Nicki were chatting about at the VMAs. "Hey, Nicki! Cardi is great and so are you! There is room for all of us because god is a woman! P.S. Buy Sweetener on iTunes!"