It feels fairly impossible that Ariana Grande’s pop breakthrough barely came a half-decade ago. Indeed, both first album Yours Truly and lead single “The Way” bowed in 2013, and already she’s onto album cycle No. 4 with the release of August’s Sweetener, her career and public persona having undergone as many dramatic twists and turns in the years since as any pop artist his decade. She’s practically experienced an entire career in little more than the time it took Justin Timberlake to follow up The 20/20 Experience.
Part of the reason for this accelerated schedule was that Grande was already halfway to mutli-platform stardom — as a star of the hit Nickelodeon series Victorious and spin-off Sam & Cat — by the time of her ’13 official pop premiere. “The Way” debuted in the top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100, minting Ariana as an A-lister before many adult music listeners had even heard of her. Her profile only raised from there: Across three LPs (two of which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 albums chart), Grande managed eight Hot 100 top 10 hits, establishing herself as one of the most consistent pop stars of her generation.
Still, even with the tremendous amount of success Grande enjoyed with her first three albums, fourth LP Sweetener marks a new apex for her. The album launches atop the Billboard 200 this week with 231,000 in equivalent sales units (according to Nielsen Music), easily the highest such mark for her. Meanwhile, the album’s debut coincides with its first two singles appearing in the Hot 100’s top 10 simultaneously — “No Tears Left to Cry” at No. 7, having previously debuted at No. 3, and “God Is a Woman” at No. 8, a new peak — and seven other tracks littering the chart. It also follows a triumphant night at last Monday’s (Aug. 20) MTV Video Music Awards, where Grande took home the best pop video award for “No Tears,” while also delivering one of the awards’ best-received performances (a Last Supper-homaging “God”) and serving as one-half of the evening’s most buzzed about power couple, along with comedian fiancé Pete Davidson.
Ariana’s victorious August is notable for several reasons, starting with the fact that the reception to her third album, 2016’s Dangerous Woman, by no means guaranteed a continued upward trajectory for her. Dangerous wasn’t a flop: The album debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, with 175,000 equivalent album units moved, a then-best mark for the pop star. But where second album My Everything spawned a trio of bulletproof Hot 100 top 5 hits for Grande — the Iggy Azalea-featuring “Problem,” the Zedd-stewarded “Break Free” and the Jessie J and Nicki Minaj triple-team “Bang Bang” — the Dangerous singles met with a more muted response, as advance cut “Focus” and the ballad title track just barely graced the Hot 100’s top 10, and third single “Into You” missed it altogether, peaking at No. 13. It wasn’t until the set’s fourth single, the Minaj-spiked “Side to Side,” that the album spawned a lasting smash, reaching No. 4 and spending 28 weeks on the chart.
And of course, Grande’s career was put on very dramatic pause 15 months ago, when a suicide bombing outside her concert at the U.K.’s Manchester Arena killed or injured over 100 of her fans and left her predictably shellshocked. There was understandable question of how soon she’d be able to bounce back from the trauma — if at all — but following the One Love for Manchester benefit concert (which Ariana headlined) and a brief public hiatus, Grande came zooming back into the spotlight. Not only is her music stronger and more assertive than ever, but she’s never been more publicly visible: She’s been a constant presence the last few months on Twitter and in the tabloids, treading carefully but not fearfully back into the world of pop celebrity, and strengthening her already considerable bond with her millions of fans in the process.
It’s also significant to see Grande’s ascending to new heights in 2018 simply because not many of her pop star peers are doing so alongside her. If you look at most of the other major pop figures from Grande’s early days, most of them have taken a step back in terms of their mainstream presence in the last couple years. Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Timberlake are all coming off projects whose commercial returns were highly underwhelming compared to expectations, and while the most recent albums by Lorde, Kesha and P!nk all sold fairly well and received a decent amount of critical acclaim, none really re-cemented their respective artists’ presence on the Hot 100 or mainstream radio, where they were fixtures with previous efforts. Even Taylor Swift, once the standard-bearer of too-big-to-fail pop largesse, experienced a notable (if hardly calamitous) downturn in top 40 omnipresence with 2017’s Reputation. While her peers and predecessors find themselves victim to changing tastes and trends within the pop landscape, Ariana continues to rise untouched above them.
Finally, it’s noteworthy what kind of album Grande is doing all of this with. Sweetener is the pop star’s most mature and personal album, an emotional meditation on love and fear and security that is in spots deliriously happy and in others almost unbearably anxious, with her experiences following the Manchester attack and her blossoming love with Davidson both clear points of inspiration. And while the set’s R&B-inflected pop sound is still recognizably Grande’s, it’s also perhaps her least explicitly commercial album to date. Sweetener features few pop explosions or obvious radio crossovers on the level of “Break Free” and “Problem” (or “Into You” and “Side to Side”) — even cathartic lead single “No Tears” feels somewhat left-field, riding an early-’90s hybrid dance/R&B swing rather than a pounding 4/4 EDM propulsion or a more 2018-friendly trop-house bounce — instead opting for more intimate, restrained production and lyrics that largely eschew grand statements for private sentiments.
While some fans have decried the set’s lack of obvious bangers, many have already fallen for the album’s off-kilter charms — shepherded sonically in large part by fellow pop weirdo Pharrell Williams — while critically, the set has attracted arguably Grande’s strongest set of reviews yet. The album has also benefited from the strong branding of Grande’s distinctive upside-down font used to promote the album on social media, as well as the eye-popping, narrative-forwarding visuals for “No Tears” and “God,” and a rollout that has built smartly over the course of several months without becoming totally overwhelming, and peaked at the exact right time, of VMAs week. For Ariana to hit new commercial benchmarks while also reaching new artistic heights, on the back of a promotional campaign that established this as a new and unique era in her evolution — well, that’s what pop stardom is supposed to be, isn’t it?
Of course, it’s no secret that pop supermacy, as we understood it at the beginning of the ’10s, is not what it once was as we near the decade’s end. The days of the star-powered, svengali-directed, radio-driven dance-pop anthem as the core element of music mainstream’s are largely over, with radio replaced by streaming, the svengali replaced by the freelance super-producer, and dance-pop mostly replaced by hip-hop. But that just makes it all the more impressive how Grande has continued to defy gravity while so many of her pop peers have fallen around her. By growing her sound without completely overhauling it, by overcoming tragedy and coming back more of a force than ever, she’s managed to reach 2018 as one of music’s biggest and best-loved stars. And there’s no reason to think we couldn’t be having the same conversation about her in 2023, either.