“I’m a motherf#!kin’ train wreck / I don’t wanna be too much,” sings Ariana Grande on the first verse of “Boyfriend,” her latest collaboration with the post-Drake hip-hop act (and production duo) Social House. “But I don’t wanna miss your touch / And you don’t seem to give a f#!k.”
Over a stuttering, pseudo-indie beat with her now-signature emotional swagger and sexual frankness, the singer seems to revel in her newfound throne as pop’s top diva, managing the neat feat of appealing to both the broad general audiences of Adele and Taylor Swift fans while reveling in the post-trap sonic pathos that has become the de facto playground of pop music’s new vanguard. The boys, like many of the rappers who have appeared alongside Grande in recent years, are mostly an afterthought. Her star power is undeniable.
That she’s made this ascension, mostly over the last 18 months or so, feels both surprising and inevitable, but ultimately indicative of the shifting fortunes and currents of pop music throughout the 2010s.
Reaching these rarefied heights was not preordained. Grande got her start in showbiz as a teen on Broadway and then on the Nickelodeon television series Victorious and its spin-off Sam & Cat, but her music career was jump-started by a run of cover songs self-uploaded to YouTube. It’s an origin story that harkens back to the late-’90s/early-2000s Disney factory of pop acts, as well as the slightly newer Justin Bieber/Halsey model of instant pop fame.
Both those career pathways are littered with has-beens and never-weres, but Grande always had an ace in the hole — a genuinely virtuosic voice and a deep-seated relationship with R&B. Replete with an airy nimbleness and effortlessly melismatic riffs, Grande’s assured delivery and extraordinary five-octave range easily wins favorable comparisons to R&B titans like Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, singers who proved to be guiding lights for the young singer, even as she found her way in a pop music space decades removed from either singer’s heyday.
Carey and Houston’s shadow looms largest on Grande’s 2013 debut album, Yours Truly. In an era when pop stars were either rapidly adopting hip-hop styles and production or leaning into Max Martin maximalism, Grande struck in a way that left her a bit out of place. With a strong bent toward doo-wop and ’90s R&B on about half of the record, along with some tentative forays into hip-hop collaboration (including the Top 10 single with future ex-beau Mac Miller, “The Way”), it wasn’t the most auspicious debut. As Katy Perry was perfecting faceless pop perfection and Miley Cyrus was inciting faux outrage over cultural appropriation — and, uh, construction work on that “Wrecking Ball” video — Grande felt a bit over-managed and fussy, an artist who would easily have succeeded in another era, but not this one.
The 2014 follow-up, My Everything, despite a bevy of hits that put Grande on the A list, came as a bit of an overcorrection. Much of her traditional R&B impulses (a few choice ballads aside) faded away as Grande brought in a load of pop songwriting heavy hitters (Max Martin, Shellback, Ryan Tedder, Zedd) and a seemingly endless succession of rapper guest spots in a naked push toward the center of the musical landscape.
Again, Grande shinesd vocally, proving to be an adept dancefloor siren and a capable and mature foil for the likes of everyone from Iggy Azalea to The Weeknd. But the sense of conceptual strain, that Grande was working to gracefully insert herself into a contemporary conversation rather than charting out her own vision, remained. Fine enough if you’re just looking to stack platinum records and play awards shows, but still chasing the pop moment and falling well short of her readily apparent artistic promise.
At the same time, the other aspects of being a pop star in the 2010s were coming into focus. Grande was becoming a reliable guest vocalist for rappers and other pop stars, able to low-key flex on other’s songs and adapt to a variety of stylistic contexts. Her romances with rappers like Big Sean and Mac Miller served as tabloid fodder, but also as a way to understand her outside of the Nickelodeon lens. Grande, whose diminutive physical presence and youthful features accentuated the already-precocious nature of her abilities and lyrical themes, needed the gravitas.
A sense of relative maturity emerged by the time of 2016’s Dangerous Woman. The album arrived at a time when older artists on the pop landscape seemed to be finally falling by the wayside, and traditional stars (Lady Gaga, Swift, Perry) floundered a bit in a new, more diffuse world dominated by streaming and social media presences. It came as albums by Beyonce and Rihanna offered a vision of pop-R&B success less reliant on conventional media strategies and radio, one that continues to be more and more prevalent. It’s a world more conducive to a Cardi B, in other words than a Justin Timberlake.
Despite Grande’s old-school vocal talents and heretofore traditional album cycle approach, she excelled in the new reality, both musically and extra-musically. Songs like the title track and “Side to Side” (featuring frequent sparring partner Nicki Minaj) sauntered comfortably in a post-genre world, boasting the energetic build of rock, the melodic approach of R&B and the production aesthetics of hip-hop, finally creating a sound that felt of the moment and distinctly Grande. Already a massive streaming star, Dangerous Woman solidified her top-tier status, fully tossing off the shackles of her teen stardom.
Of course, the biggest moment of Ariana Grande’s career was a tragedy far out of her control. In the summer of 2017, a suicide bomber killed 23 people leaving one of her concerts in the English city of Manchester. It remains one of the most shocking acts of terrorism in the modern era and an inescapable part of Grande’s story.
The events in Manchester, followed by the accidental overdose of her ex Mac Miller in 2018, brought an emotional urgency to Grande’s recent work. Both of those events, as well as her brief whirlwind relationship with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, add to Grande’s new level of cultural omnipresence, and her music across the last two years seemed custom-built to match. 2018’s Sweetener (Pharrell assists aside) and 2019’s thank u, next saw the singer comfortably weld trap elements indelibly into her pop-R&B style while releasing a hip-hop-inspired stream of projects and one-offs that led to some of the biggest hits of her career.
The approach also seemed to free her up as a persona, as well, with songs like “everytime” and “needy” finding a new emotional honesty within hip-hop-inflected frameworks, while songs like “thank u, next” and “boyfriend” showcased a carefree sense of power and identity that her earlier albums often seemed to be searching for.
At the close of the 2010s, Grande stands tall in a complex pop field. She’s fluent in traditional pop star modes, able to rip off the kind of big-tent, R&B-inflected anthems that have characterized much of Top 40 radio during the past couple decades, while also reveling in the elusive sense of post-genre interiority that rose up from Soundcloud streams to dominate the charts. She has as much in common with Drake and Post Malone as she does with Adele or Beyonce.
It’s an impressive balancing act, one that makes her perhaps the most emblematic pop star you could imagine at the end of this decade.
What: Ariana Grande
Where: Colonial Life Arena, 801 Lincoln St.
When: Tuesday, Dec. 3, 8 p.m.
Price: $49.95 and up
More: 803-576-9200, coloniallifearena.com
Ariana Grande in 12 Songs
“The Way” (featuring Mac Miller) from 2013’s Yours Truly
This song is where Grande’s story really starts, and it’s predictably a bit of a throwback, with serious early-2000s, Aaliyah and Ja Rule early vibes. Nevertheless, she and Miller have obvious chemistry, and the singer comes across as a sharper, more effortless version of Christina Aguilera from more than a decade earlier. As her first single, it peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100, establishing the Nickelodeon kid star as a force to be reckoned with.
“Tattooed Heart,” from 2013’s Yours Truly
A gorgeous bit of doo-wop that introduced one of the singer’s signatures — gratuitously overdubbed vocal parts that allow Grande to be her own girl group — “Tattooed Heart” almost suggests an alternate path for the future pop juggernaut, one where retro tendencies and her virtuosic vocal skills carried her through a career with a lot less headlines and a lot less fun.
“Problem” (featuring Iggy Azalea), from 2014’s My Everything
While “My Way” was a hit, it wasn’t until “Problem” that it felt like Grande came into her own as a genuine diva. With elegant pop architecture from Max Martin, the tune rides an outrageous sax part and a propulsive dance beat while making space for Azalea and an uncredited Big Sean, hitting all of the big buttons that her sophomore smash would mash.
“Love Me Harder” (featuring The Weeknd)”, from 2014’s My Everything
Another single from an album loaded with them, “Love Me Harder” is noteworthy as one of the first entries of louche indie R&B favorite The Weeknd into the pop world, but it’s actually more impressive for how comfortable Grande sounds working with the seedy themes and darkly noir electro-R&B landscapes that come along with her duet partner.
“My Everything,” from My Everything
The album’s title cut is one of a handful of surprisingly straightforward ballads on an album otherwise consumed with dance floor and radio bangers. Over a simple piano line, Grande delivers a heartbroken reverie as if crafting the signature tune on a Pixar soundtrack. It’s a quick, almost tossed-off tune, but it still serves as a reminder of her considerable skills as a pure crooner, with nuanced breath control and an incredible ease across registers that again insists that she’s as pure a vocal juggernaut as the likes of Adele.
“Side to Side” (featuring Nicki Minaj) from 2016’s Dangerous Woman
Despite the presence of Nicki, a sure-fire sign that the producers had grand ambitions for the song, there’s something so casually sultry about the syncopated guitar strums as Grande bites off the end of some lines and lingers over others. The seductive impunity is the song’s lustful satisfaction.
“Dance To This” (featuring Ariana Grande), from Troye Sivan’s 2018 album Bloom
Grande pops up on other artist’s albums as much as she features guests on hers. And on fairly inconsequential spots, sometimes genuine magic occurs, as on the fluttery second verse of Troye Sivan’s “Dance To This.” It’s a song about finding a deep well of romance by staying in rather than going out to the club, and Grande matches the fiery and vulnerable intimacy of her duet partner so easily it makes you long for her Robyn tribute album.
“no tears left to cry,” from 2018’s Sweetener
On a song that feels like a pointed response to the Manchester tragedy, Grande takes the counter-intuitive tact of leaning into pop maximalism on this triumphant single. The driving dance floor romp doubles as a kiss-off anthem so buoyant that any sense of bitterness fades gracefully into the ether. “We’re way too fly to partake in all this hate / We out here vibin’, we vibin’, we vibin’” isn’t a political lyric until it is.
“goodnight n go,” from Sweetener
Sweetener was full of unnecessary risks, none more left-field than this entrancing re-imagining of Imogen Heap’s dreamy indie electro-pop as a svelte bit of trap-inspired R&B. Grande’s joyful vocal layers feel like a glass shattering as they unfold across the track, making clear the influence the English cult singer has obviously has had on her production choices over the years.
“thank u, next,” from 2019’s thank u, next
It’s difficult to fully absorb the success of “thank u, next.” As the first single off Grande’s latest effort, it feels like the glorious payoff to all of the themes, attitudes and personas that she’s been building toward for years. It was her first No. 1 single, and it broke streaming records of all kinds over the course of late 2018 and early 2019. Featuring an almost conversational reflection on past relationships that turned men (rather than women) into narrative devices for once, its subtle feminism and Grande’s now all-consuming charisma make this a catchy, indelible hit that listeners all over the world couldn’t really get enough of.
“7 rings,” from thank u, next
This single is the latest in a long line that beg questions about cultural appropriation as pop singers bite off the sounds and signifiers of hip-hop. Although the remix featuring 2 Chainz (a past collaborator of Grande’s to boot) allayed some of the concerns, there’s no denying that the singer can really make the most of a killer beat, more so than most A-list rappers on a good day. We’re a long way from, well, “The Way.”
“Nobody” (with Chaka Khan),” from 2019’s Charlie Angels (Original Motion Picture Soundtrack)
Apparently, the movie is already a flop, but the soundtrack features numerous Grande contributions, and is worth the price of admission on this song as she trades verses with Chaka Khan over a ’70s-indebted R&B groove that again showcases her tremendous versatility and suggests she likely would have been a star in any era.