On Sweetener, Ariana Grande presents a more upbeat outlook than you’d expect; Mac Miller’s Swimming was a glimpse into his weary state of mind; Nicki Minaj’s Queen is an attempt to stay commercially relevant.
Artist: Ariana Grande
Album: Sweetener ***1/2
Ariana Grande’s musical instincts seem to be pulling her in two very different directions. On her latest album, Sweetener, the American singer seems to be tussling between pushing boundaries and sticking to conventional standards.
Grande has worked with Pharrell Williams on 7 of the 15 tracks on the record, with the producer using intriguing textures and beats while playing with song structures to create the more interesting half of the album. He does go overboard with his eccentric touch on ‘The Light Is Coming’, an otherwise terrific song made almost unbearable by a distracting, grating spoken-word sample that inexplicably never fades.
The other half of Sweetener, produced by several hit-makers, including Max Martin and Ilya, is more generic and formulaic, although the aforementioned producers do deliver the record’s biggest standout, ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, a pristine hit in keeping with the chart-topping dance pop they specialize in.
The album’s contents seem informed more by her relationship with Pete Davidson (who even has a track named after him) than her breakup with Mac Miller, presenting a more upbeat outlook than you’d expect given the events of the preceding year. While there is heartbreak and vulnerability here – the album opener is a beautiful a-cappella snippet of ‘The Four Seasons’, ‘An Angel Cried’, while the closer, ‘Get Well Soon’, seems to refer to last year’s tragedy in Manchester – the set is rooted in healing instead of despair.
“The light is coming to give back everything the darkness stole,” Grande says on the aforementioned ‘The Light Is Coming’, a sentiment that seems to have resonated with her while working on this project.
Sweetener may be uneven, and its producers’ styles may often overshadow its singer’s own personality, but the record’s experimental tendencies help Grande stand out in the R&B-tinged pop landscape and create exciting, offbeat tracks while showcasing her clear, smooth vocals.
Highlights: ‘No Tears Left to Cry’, ‘Sweetener’, ‘Get Well Soon’
Artist: Mac Miller
Album: Swimming ***1/2
In his mellow final album, Mac Miller has given us a glimpse at his weary state of mind. Released just a month prior to his untimely death at the age of 26, Swimming offers a strikingly introspective collection of hip hop tunes that sail sublimely on the rapper’s laidback delivery set against relatively sparse backdrops.
The album finds the artist searching for solace while getting over a breakup and struggling with substance abuse. There are no featured appearances this time around unlike 2016’s significantly busier The Divine Feminine. The album, nonetheless, does include contributions by the likes of Snoop Dogg, Syd, and Thundercat.
From its haunting start with ‘Come Back to Earth’ on which Miller chooses to sing instead of rap to its trippy end with ‘So It Goes’, Swimming connects with listeners even if it goes on for a bit too long or doesn’t offer enough variety along the way. A host of producers have helped create these songs, but the final result is cohesive and always sounds very emphatically like Miller’s record. The rapper impresses with his wordplay and his relaxed style works well with the restrained production.
Nearly a decade removed from his mixtape beginnings, Swimming shows tremendous growth, offering an intoxicating look at a troubled life that seems even more poignant and bleak in light of recent events.
Highlights: ‘Come Back to Earth’, ‘What’s the Use?’, ‘Self Care’, ‘Ladders’, ‘Dunno’
Artist: Nicki Minaj
Worried that a certain someone might usurp her place atop the hip hop throne, Nicki Minaj has released the grand Queen, an album comprising of a whopping 19 tracks that sees the artist demonstrate her rap skills while attempting to stay commercially relevant.
The Trinidadian-American rapper has basically crammed two albums worth of material in one, trying on various styles with the help of a number of her famous friends.
Minaj seeks inspiration from all over the musical spectrum in putting together these tracks.
‘Barbie Dreams’, which playfully disses her male contemporaries, references Notorious B.I.G.’s classic ‘Just Playing (Dreams)’. A supersonic Eminem appears on ‘Majesty’ along with singer Labrinth who adds a melodic chorus to the song. Ariana Grande features on the loved-up radio friendly pop tune ‘Bed’. Island vibes adorn ‘Ganja Burn’. And there’s even a piano ballad on the album in the shape of ‘Come See About Me’.
But in embracing all these many sounds, Minaj has created a set that lacks coherence or a truly unique outlook. Queen is cheeky and raunchy and mostly enjoyable, but this isn’t a deep, intimate exploration of the singer’s life and thoughts. The direction of this project seems to have been influenced by the pressure of staying number one in her realm, and the strain shows in the result. A more cohesive, more focused record that was less concerned with popularity could have made better use of the rapper’s considerable talents.
Highlights: ‘Majesty’, ‘Barbie Dreams’, ‘Coco Chanel’.