With 'Thank U, Next,' Ariana Grande Shows How to Thrive as a Pop Star in a Hip-Hop Musical Economy

Ariana Grande
Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for iHeartMedia

Ariana Grande backstage during the 2018 iHeartRadio Wango Tango by AT&T at Banc of California Stadium on June 2, 2018 in Los Angeles.

In early October, Ariana Grande caught the attention of Pop Twitter by replying to a tweet from a fan about the "Sweetener era" possibly being over. "It ain’t ova!" she proclaimed, further elaborating: "i don’t really like 'era’s'. i jus wanna make music and drop it whenever and perform it. i don’t want to conform to the like ... ‘routine’ or like ‘formula’ anymore. i love music i ain’t waiting another 2 years to drop it. i want to share it w u when it’s freshhh."

It took less than a month for Grande to make good on her freshhh-service guarantee. On Saturday (Nov. 3), she announced via a series of responses to fan tweets that her new song and album would both be coming soon and would both be titled "Thank U, Next." The song arrived that very night and quickly revealed itself as an ode to Grande's famous exes, including Davidson as well as soccer star Ricky Alvarez and rappers Big Sean and the late Mac Miller. Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but "Thank U" came in scorching hot, seemingly right out of the ovens and onto a million Spotify playlists. 

Of course, "Thank U, Next" is not actually that vengeful: Despite its snappy title hook, the song expresses gratitude for the lessons Grande's former loves taught her ("I've loved and I've lost, but that's not what I see/ So look what I got, look what you taught me"), while also finding confidence and resilience in her independence ("I met someone else... Her name is Ari, and I'm so good with that"). But it was unquestionably timely: Not only did the song come just a couple weeks after Grande's announced split with Davidson -- and days after the two were lobbing public post-breakup volleys -- but it also came, as many were quick to notice, mere minutes before the debut of that week's Saturday Night Live, where her comedian ex currently stars. 

For an artist like Grande, such a rollout is exceedingly unusual. As most pop stars get to the level that she recently reached with fourth album Sweetener -- a critical and commercial success which pushed Grande to a new level of mainstream visibility and artistic respectability -- they tend to retreat from center stage when not literally performing. They become scarce presences on social media, engage directly with fans less often and grant fewer and fewer interviews. Albums become eras, years removed from one another, and in between them, artists all but disappear from the public eye. We've seen it happen with Beyoncé, Adele, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Rihanna, just to name a handful of her pop peers. The bigger they become, the less approachable they seem to get. 

But as promised in her October tweet, Ariana Grande isn't heading back to the shadows following Sweetener. Instead, she's still recording and releasing music when she feels like it, and personally letting fans in on the process nearly every step of the way. And while it's hard to imagine any of her most obvious top 40 compatriots playing so fast and loose with their new releases, it's all but the norm in the satellite world of hip-hop, where seemingly impromptu surprise releases are commonplace, fan engagement is frequently much more casual and stars are often expected to respond to real-life events with their music in real time. Grande quick-pitching "Thank U, Next" to her unsuspecting fans shows that she understands that the days of endless blockbuster rollouts for music's biggest stars are becoming a thing of the past, and that -- as countless recent big-name success stories have proven -- catching listeners with new music when they least expect it (like on a Saturday night two and a half months after your last album dropped) can pay off brilliantly.

And "Thank U, Next" is starting to do just that. Aside from the largely ecstatic response the song has gotten among both fans and media on the Internet -- "Ariana Grande Conquers the Breakup Song" proclaims The Atlantic, while Jezebel concludes "Ariana Grande's 'thank u, next' Is the Perfect Breakup Song" -- "Thank U" is already putting up impressive numbers. It was streamed on Spotify in America over 3 million times on Sunday, the highest daily total for any song since the late September release of Lil Wayne's Tha Carter IV launched five songs with that many spins. It's exceedingly rare for a pop song to notch that many Spotify plays in one day; even "No Tears Left to Cry," Grande's much-anticipated lead single from Sweetener, never approached two million daily U.S. listeners on the service when it debuted. (The official YouTube audio has also racked up nearly eight million plays since its debut and currently ranks as the site's top-trending video.)

While the content of "Thank U, Next" is obviously connecting with listeners, it's the way the song was released that really shows why Grande is able to continue to perform at the highest commercial levels -- and keep ascending higher -- while so many other former top 40 regulars are showing signs of slippage. Pop music in 2018 has no offseason, and the most successful artists tend to be the ones who don't over-hype their own comebacks -- and often never really go away in the first place. Grande's understanding of this new pop economy shows she's been learning about more than just life and love in the past few years -- she's also figuring out how to keep fans from "next"-ing her anytime soon.