Any Tuesday where you can be mentioned in a sentence that also includes the phrase “first since The Beatles,” chances are you’re off to a pretty good week.
That’s the company Ariana Grande found herself in with this week’s Billboard Hot 100, in which her “7 Rings,” “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” and “Thank U, Next” notched slots Nos. 1, 2 and 3 on the chart, respectively — making her the first artist since the Fab Four in ’64 to hold the top three simultaneously. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg for Grande’s record-setting week, which also saw her secure the biggest week of 2019 (and a personal career best) with the 360,000 in total units moved by fifth album Thank U, Next, which also debuts all 12 of its tracks on the Hot 100.
With such stats representing yet another leveling-up for an artist who seems like she should have no ceilings left to break through by now, we at Billboard decided to dive in a little deeper on some of the biggest questions surrounding her historic week — to try to put it in proper context, and maybe to anticipate what happens (for both Ariana and all of pop music) next. Here are five staffers’ thoughts.
Question 1: What’s the biggest factor behind Ariana’s huge first-week numbers?
Nolan Feeney: Grande got here because, right now, she’s the pop star who operates most like a rapper. With Thank U, Next, she holds the record for the biggest streaming week for a pop album, and of the 20 biggest streaming weeks ever for an album, she’s the only non-hip-hop title. In other words, she’s a pop anomaly in a hip-hop economy — but right now, I don’t think you get to that point if you’re not at least somewhat fluent in hip-hop anyway. There’s a strong trap influence all over Thank U, Next. Her steady stream of music is inspired by the free-flowing release model that rappers enjoy. Even the way her every lyric seems to launch a thousand memes and Instagram captions — You like my hair? Gee, thanks, just bought it! — seems more in line with the spirit of hip-hop wordplay than pop stardom. Sure, it doesn’t always go smoothly when she dips her toe into that world — see: the controversies around “7 Rings” — but it could also be, well, so much worse. (Lady Gaga’s “Jewels N’ Drugs” has not aged well.)
Bianca Gracie: She’s always been a darling at radio, but the rise of streaming truly shows that — in the wise words of Nicki Minaj — young Ariana really does run pop. The genre’s pool seems pretty vacant at the moment, and dropping this album in such a timely fashion definitely worked in her favor. Also, rap’s takeover of the Hot 100 has slowed down a just a bit, so with songs like Post Malone and Swae Lee’s “Sunflower” and Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode” taking a back seat in lower slots, the timing was perfect for the tunes on Thank U, Next to creep into the chart’s top tier. And we can’t forget her first Grammy win (Sweetener took home best pop vocal album), which surely piqued more interest in the singer’s music.
Lyndsey Havens: The immediacy of this album’s arrival. (Not to mention, her ruthlessly dedicated fans — you know, the ones who opted to boycott “7 Rings” so that “Break Up With Your Boyfriend, I’m Bored” had a shot at hitting No. 1). But what’s so fascinating about Ariana right now is her ability to keep her momentum going; in a way, she’s “thank u, nexting” the pivotal moments in her life and career as quickly as they come — with love, of course. In return, what we have is a case of more is more — Ariana has really gone through hell and back in the past year, give or take, and she is pouring it all into her music. Because of that, she’s become the authoritative, go-to source on herself.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s partially due to fortuitous timing: “7 Rings” is a smash, the title track is still going strong, and the album’s streaming total was always going to benefit from its two concurrent hits. But Ariana’s other song in the top three of the Hot 100 — “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which starts at No. 2 this week — points to the real reason behind the big number: General interest in Ariana Grande and her music has never been higher. The pop superstar has always been skilled at playing the social media game and making canny marketing moves (see the record-breaking “Thank U, Next” video), but the candor with which she explores her personal tragedies and professional triumphs in her current music has engaged new listeners while still resonating with longtime believers. Even if the tunes were lackluster, Ariana’s narrative and no-damns-given attitude would be enough to convince casual fans to press play… and fortunately, the new songs also happen to rule.
Andrew Unterberger: It really is all about momentum. While Ariana’s career has followed along the upwards trajectory it’s started on since her return with “No Tears Left to Cry” a short ten months ago, she’s barely paused to take a breath — and between two albums, five top ten hit singles, a handful of iconic music videos and live performances, and plenty of chart history, neither have we. She’s riding the hot hand like few artists in recent pop memory, and as long as her songs keep connecting as they have been, there’s no reason for anyone to stop her from running up the score as much as possible.
Question 2: What should be the fourth official single from Thank U, Next?
Nolan Feeney: “Ghostin” strikes me as too sad and weird to be single, and “Bloodline” has too much in common with the lurching rhythms of “Side to Side” and “God Is a Woman” to be a viable option, so I’m going with “Fake Smile.” Built around a sample of Wendy Rene’s 1964 song “After Laughter” — a lift first popularized by the Wu-Tang Clan a quarter-century earlier — the Justin Tranter co-write offers a refreshing warmth among the sparse, chillier tracks that are dominating streaming playlists right now. Its lyrics, about the emotional toll of being caught in the headlines and the ways society polices expressions of pain and sadness, will probably both stoke tabloid intrigue and (hopefully) inspire gawkers to give the girl a break. The track also feels like a fitting book-end to “No Tears Left to Cry,” and a hard-earned reminder that even sheer positive willpower can’t always overcome the curveballs life throws, and that’s all right in its own way.
Bianca Gracie: “Bloodline” definitely has “fourth single” written all over it — and I’m not just saying that because it’s my favorite song on the album! The temperatures are about to rise, and the cheeky dancehall-inspired production (shout-out to the legendary Max Martin) gives the perfect backdrop for the upcoming sunny weather. I can already see the flirtatious hook “Don’t want you in my bloodline / Just wanna have a good time” flooding the Instagram captions of women currently fed up with commitment. Add musical BFF Nicki Minaj to the remix (or even Jamaica’s own Shenseea for extra authenticity) and Grande would undoubtedly rule the spring/summer season.
Lyndsey Havens: I seriously could see any of the remaining songs becoming the fourth official single, because to Ariana, what is even standard anymore? Personally, though, I think “Bad Idea” could be the fourth single. It has the driving, rap-rock backbeat and drill-like production that softer standouts like “Imagine” or “Ghostin,” beautiful as they are, lack. Lyrically as well, it’s on par with the overall theme of this album — Ariana doing Ariana, for better or worse. The honesty in the line “You should know I’m temporary” cuts like a knife, and would likely cut through radio airwaves just as well.
Jason Lipshutz: Give me “Bloodline” horns blaring on every Top 40 radio station ASAP; let that message of having a good time without overthinking things ring out as the snow thaws and we gear up for beach season. Maybe we get something weightier like “Ghostin'” or “Fake Smile” as a single when this album campaign barrels into fall, but “Bloodline” has an outside shot of being this summer’s “I Like It.”
Andrew Unterberger: Sign me up for that spiky guitar hook to “Bad Idea” piercing pop radio all summer — the worthy FM successor to 5 Seconds of Summer’s “Youngblood,” but even more Ghost in the Machine-ish. Combined with a two-stepping electro-pop beat and backing vocal echoes that sound like Ariana still stuck in Bring It On mode? May sound like a bad idea in theory, but anything but in practice.
Question 3: What current pop artist is up next for a big breakthrough week like this?
Nolan Feeney: Given the way a one-off single not connected to any particular album — and one with its own share of celebrity-relationship rubbernecking — has become the biggest hit of her career, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Halsey enjoy this kind of success with whatever project follows “Without Me.” She certainly has experience holding consecutive spots atop a Billboard chart.
Bianca Gracie: I really think it can be Halsey. She’s enjoyed steady chart success since the release of 2015’s Badlands, and got a taste of what dominating the Hot 100 feels like with her ubiquitous “Closer” collaboration with The Chainsmokers. But the singer kicked off 2019 in a major way: by finally achieving her first No. 1 as a lead artist thanks to her aching smash “Without Me.” This could very well lead to a faster stream of chart-ruling singles for Halsey in the near future.
Lyndsey Havens: I can envision Billie Eilish having a big breakthrough week, though maybe not quite like this: There’s a reason Ariana was the first artist to match a feat only The Beatles have conquered. But Eilish alreay broke one billion streams last year, and still without a proper album. She’s had seven Hot 100 hits in under a calendar year, with “Bury a Friend,” the lead single off her upcoming debut, recently hitting No. 14. Considering the steady trajectory she’s had, a jump for Billie ffrom rising star to superstar in the very near future seems a distinct possibility.
Jason Lipshutz: The smart money’s on Camila Cabello: a supremely talented pop artist with a seemingly unending supply of charisma, a dedicated fan base and new music in the works. Camila has already notched a handful of hit singles, and if her songwriting opens up on her next album while maintaining her radio appeal, the sky’s the limit.
Andrew Unterberger: Since the beginning of 2017, Khalid has almost served as a superstar hiding in plain sight, scoring major hits alongside wide-ranging artists like Logic, Normani, Halsey and Marshmello — slowly making his sweetly strained croon voice one of the truly unavoidable sounds of late-’10s pop, even as he remains a slightly mysterious solo presence. That last part could change as soon as his next album, which he recently revealed on Twitter to be coming in April, and whose rumored lead single “Talk” debuts on the Hot 100 amidst the Ariana flurry this week at No. 44.
Question 4: Is Thank U, Next Ariana Grande’s best album?
Nolan Feeney: It’s at least better than Sweetener — and I know I’m in the minority at Billboard for not being totally in love with Pharrell’s circa-2008 beats. (Seriously, half of those tracks could have been right at home on Madonna’s Hard Candy!) And while I miss some of the diversity of an album like Dangerous Woman — an album that jumped from dance-pop to soul to disco to hip-hop and R&B and back again without ever feeling like it didn’t all spring from the same mood board — I do hope Thank U, Next’s tight focus is a more successful approach than an album that tries to be (my) everything.
Still, what sets Thank U, Next ahead of the pack is the that it did the thing all great albums long to do: It had Something to Say™. We can quibble over beats and tracklist lengths, but years from, now we’ll remember this record for the way it made us feel like we logged right into Grande’s iMessage account as she grappled with big questions about love, life and loss with enviable grace.
Bianca Gracie: It’s still too early to call Thank U, Next her best to date, as we have to wait for the novelty to wear off to see if these songs truly stick. For me, I’m not sure anything can top 2016’s Dangerous Woman anyway, but Thank U, Next is surely her most consistent-sounding album, and hones in on her newly embraced vulnerability — sometimes more effectively than Sweetner. And while she’s recently been panned for it, this is the album where her love for R&B really shines. If anything, Thank U, Next is Grande’s version of Justin Bieber’s Journals — a reflection of a long-praised pop star wanting to shatter their pristine mold and venture into new sonic waters.
Lyndsey Havens: Statistically speaking, Thank U, Next may be the mightier of the two, but Sweetener as a whole stands taller to me — even though I’m forever grateful to have a hauntingly emotive song like “ghostin” in my life. What’s most interesting, though, is that Thank U, Next couldn’t exist without Sweetener: More so than any other pair of consecutive (but separately released) albums in recent memory, TUN followed its predecessor out of necessity, as if Ariana needed both to hold each hand as she gets through some of the most trying moments of her young-adult life.
Jason Lipshutz: Time for a cop-out answer: maybe! Thank U, Next is certainly Ariana’s most emotionally charged and cohesive, but I’m still catching my breath from last year’s Sweetener, the most beguiling and well-rounded pop project of 2018. To me it’s a matter of personal preference, and maybe even mood: the devastation at the center of Thank U, Next lands with a dazzling force, while Sweetener‘s 15 tracks arrive like a flurry of presents to unwrap, some imperfect but almost all sumptuous. Thank U, Next may very well be viewed as Ariana’s crowning achievement when all is said and done, but the lighter moments of the six-months-older Sweetener are still difficult for me to overlook. I guess some days I feel like listening to “Pete Davidson,” and others I feel like listening to Ariana post-Pete Davidson.
Andrew Unterberger: Absolutely. As impressive as Grande’s chart-related achievements for Thank U, Next are, to me they’re still overshadowed by what a success the album is artistically: a cohesive 12-song set populated by both undeniable singles and wrenching deep cuts, with lyrical and sonic intimacy beyond rare at this level of pop, and even a light overarching beginning-to-end lyrical narrative if you want to read it as such. It’s the album her entire career has been leading up to, and the pop album to beat for 2019.
Question 5: Where do you think Ariana Grande currently ranks among the greatest pop stars of the ’10s?
Nolan Feeney: Certainly behind Adele, whose mind-boggling album sales are so phenomenal it’s hard to rank anyone above her — even though I probably haven’t listened to half the songs on 25 since it came out. And while dropping two albums in the span of six months is deeply impressive, Grande’s prolific output so far doesn’t feel like such a revolutionary move that her name has become its own verb in the way “pulling a Beyoncé” (releasing a surprise album) or “pulling a Taylor Swift” (successfully crossing over from country to pop) have. Those two artists also play stadiums, which feels like its own status marker, though with two No. 1 singles and a No. 2 single that could very well join them, Thank U, Next seems to be closing in on the kind of run 1989 had.
Lady Gaga plays stadiums, but her imperial phase came at the tail end of the previous decade, and her 2010s output has taken some weird turns compared to Grande’s more steady rise, so I’d say Grande beats her out with this record. And then there’s Rihanna, whom Grande is roughly on par with when it comes to chart starts in the 2010s — but Rihanna has sustained that over a longer period of time this decade, which I think is harder to do and therefore gives her the edge. All of which is to say, according to this not-so-scientific criteria, Grande is probably lower end of top 5 greatest pop stars of the ‘10s? But I’m also defining pop star rather narrowly here, and I’m sure one of you is reading this wondering, “What about Drake?”
Bianca Gracie: So we should all make it clear that Rihanna and Beyoncé are untouchable queens of pop and are in a league of their own! But I’d say that after Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift — even though they may have fumbled the bag with Joanne and Reputation, respectively — Ariana rounds out the decade’s top five. Her growing connection with fans, the success of the Dangerous Woman Tour (which proved she can also dominate on the road), creating her own identity within the pop culture sphere and her ever-rising presence on the charts places her above counterparts like Katy Perry, Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, Dua Lipa and Halsey.
Lyndsey Havens: In my year-end write-up about Sweetener, Billboard’s No. 1 pick for album of the year, I made a joke about how although Ariana’s life has been turned upside down, she’s always been on top. That has only become more true. Without a doubt, Ariana ranks at the top of her class of ‘10s pop stars, not only because she’s resuscitating the genre (cue “breathin’”) but also because she’s igniting its revival.
Jason Lipshutz: As we near the end of the decade, Ariana Grande has positioned herself as one of the pop artists that we have to mention when summarizing the 2010s. Her current commercial run includes numbers that are literally unparalleled, and only a handful of musicians — Beyonce, Taylor, Drake, Adele, Rihanna, Gaga, Kanye — have had a bigger cultural impact than Ariana this decade. Has she checked every single box that an era-defining artist typically fills? Not yet, but that doesn’t mean a Super Bowl performance or Grammys coup aren’t awaiting. What the success of Thank U, Next accomplishes is demonstrate that Ariana is more than just a household name at this point, but an indispensable voice in modern popular music that will enter the next decade at the top of the game.
Andrew Unterberger: After Thank U Next, I think she’s jumped into the decade’s top five, and probably just behind Beyoncé, Rihanna, Taylor Swift and Drake. There’s an argument to be made between her and a couple other stars who started the ’10s stronger, like Adele or Justin Bieber, but there’s no real argument against her being the pace-setter for all popular music at decade’s end.