Though two of the early singles were handled by the Swedish hitmaker Max Martin—pop’s greatest advocate for how fun it can be to color within the lines—the bulk of the album came from a collaboration between Grande and the legendary hip-hop trickster Pharrell. Grande says she directed him to “make the weirdest thing we can,” and though the results are indeed weird for her, they’re within Pharrell’s quirky remit: tinny drums and squelchy keys, syncopation that a newborn foal might make a meme-able dance to, hooks and harmonies that get chanted or panted. As Pharrell cheers her on in the background (“sheesh!”), she’ll trill lackadaisically or riff on trendy rap flows in ways that sometimes blur into dewy spoken word.
All of which means that Grande no longer gives the impression of some superhero escaping an explosion by using her braid as a helicopter propeller. Rather, she’s inside the madness. On many of the songs, her flighty voice actually gets used as grounding, with her drawled syllables locating a rhythmic center amid the Speak & Spell jazz of “Successful” and the Janus-faced craziness of “Sweetener.” Fans have come to expect a roller coaster’s predictable but satisfying thrill from Grande’s music, but here they get rackety pinball machines: rewarding and frustrating depending on the listener’s own familiarity, mood, and internal rhythm.
Which is not to say Grande has become more inscrutable. The singer was once famous for the jankiness of her words, thanks in part to her vocal style and in part to Martin’s “melodic math” trumping the need for songs to mean anything in particular. But now her lyrics are coolly enunciated and emphasized, which may owe to Grande taking a larger role in songwriting. She’s tart, funny, and straightforward as she describes the mystery of infatuation. On “Blazed,” for example, she goes all in on the soul-mate talk by referencing reincarnation, while winking at the preposterousness of it all: “They be making fun of this on TV / They wouldn’t laugh if they were inside my past life.” (The preemptive strike against snickering might not be necessary—what comes after the astrology craze if not the resurgence of eternal recurrence?)
These newly crystalline lyrics—and the music they’re paired with—show off a tweaked take on her familiar subject matter, the rush of transformative love. In large part, the drama of her old work was applied to fantasies about dangerous romances that thrillingly complicated her life (see “Into You,” “Problem,” and “Dangerous Woman,” among others). But now she’s presenting companionship as nothing but balm. Her beloved is the agave nectar of the album title, or a reassuring dream on “R.E.M,” or an anxiety-fighting therapist on “Breathin” and “Get Well Soon.” Conflict lurks in her lyrics—some darkness that has to be beaten back, or some misfortune that has to be moved past—but Pharrell’s arrangements feature no bass lines of looming evil. Instead, there’s just ever-present queasiness in chords and rhythms, and Grande’s voice offers the Dramamine.