Five Hot Takes on Ariana Grande's Post-'Sweetener' Career

ISSUE 11 2019 - COMMISSIONED FOR ONE TIME USE ONLY - DO NOT REUSE!!!
Illustration by Diego Patiño
Ariana Grande

In the eight months since releasing her chart-topping fourth album, the nine-time BBMA nominee and performer has only gotten bigger -- and her approach to pop stardom more adventurous.

1. She changed the streaming game.

Last year, from February to mid-November, hip-hop dominated Billboard’s Streaming Songs chart, with a streak of 14 rap tracks trading off in the top spot. Then “Thank U, Next” dropped, quickly followed by its ultraviral rom-com-re-creating video. Suddenly Grande became the first primarily pop artist to top the chart since January -- and spent the rest of the calendar year at No. 1. In 2019 she scored another No. 1, “7 Rings” (which, like “Thank U, Next,” also topped the Hot 100), and made a historic streaming debut with her Thank U, Next album. Her success has seemingly swung the streaming pendulum back toward pop, with a major debut week for Billie Eilish’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and heavily streaming-assisted Hot 100 No. 1s for the Jonas Brothers (“Sucker”), Halsey (“Without Me”) and Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga (“Shallow”).

2. R&B radio discovered her.

Since her Mariah Carey-indebted 2013 debut, Yours Truly, Grande’s love for hip-hop and R&B has been obvious. But by 2018 she still hadn’t crossed over to those radio formats and had never appeared on the R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart. In 2019, however, Grande is scaling that chart as a featured artist on 2 Chainz’s “Rule the World” (No. 18 and climbing), and starting to make headway at the format as a lead artist with her own “7 Rings.”

3. She rewrote the rules of album tracklists.

Historically, pop stars have frontloaded their albums with already popular singles, and that has been particularly true in the streaming era. On Thank U, Next, Grande took the opposite approach: The last tracks on the 12-song LP became three of the biggest Hot 100 hits of 2019 so far (the chart-topping “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” as well as the No. 2-peaking “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”). It’s a move that showed Grande’s confidence -- she knows her fans will stick around for the whole album -- and experimental approach, both of which helped her become the first pop artist to ever land every track from an album in the top half of the Streaming Songs chart simultaneously.

4. She brought *NSYNC back.

The blockbuster boy band was mostly dormant since going on hiatus in 2002 but reentered the zeitgest when Grande interpolated one of its songs on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Rather than sample an obvious pop classic like “Bye Bye Bye” or “Girlfriend,” Grande borrowed from the prechorus of the No Strings Attached track “It Makes Me Ill” -- showing both her deep pop fandom as well as a bit of a wink at “Break Up” co-writer (and Strings collaborator) Max Martin. That led to the group (sans Justin Timberlake) reuniting in April at Grande’s headlining Coachella first-weekend gig, where the band joined her onstage for “Break Up” and sang its own “Tearin’ Up My Heart.”

5. She moved on.

Most pop artists would spend at least a year milking the success of a February release as big as Thank U, Next. Not Grande: She has already released new song “Monopoly” (a duet with frequent collaborator Victoria Monet). With its clipped, hip-hop-style delivery and sexually fluid lyrics (“I like women and men”), it debuted at No. 70 on the Hot 100 in early April -- and made good on Grande’s previous promise to break out of the album-era mode of promotion and to release music “when it’s freshhh.”

Billboard Music Awards 2019

This article originally appeared in the April 27 issue of Billboard.


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