If you think about it, we've had a brief drought of artists ascending to Beyoncé-level superstardom. Rihanna and Beyoncé solidified that status long ago with big-sellers like Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift not far behind. In the past, Grande had served great, diverse pop albums but for her to truly catapult up the ranks, she had to deliver an album that truly defined her as an artist - think Beyoncé's 4, Justin Timberlake's FutureSexLoveSounds and Rihanna's ANTI.
When she returned back in April with No Tears Left To Cry, the first few seconds led you to believe she'd chosen to move forward with a ballad. It would've been a nice, if not predictable, way to return to music but at 14 seconds in, the song takes a turn. "I'm picking it up, picking it up, I'm loving, I'm living, I'm picking it up," she sings as the soundscape races towards a futuristic, beat-driven place. No Tears Left To Cry is a perfect pop song. It sounds like nothing else on the radio and yet it's like it was scientifically manufactured to take you to the state of mind she vaguely describes in the song. What shines through most though is it's unwavering positivity. As Grande would find as the year progressed, it's momentary, but so powerful.
As she worked towards the release of her album, she reconnected with her fans online, meeting them with unbridled excitement about the record. They matched that excitement while Ariana and fans spent months going back and forth with "love u". Grande has a beautiful sense of trust in her fans. They interact more than any other fanbase and she's harboured a community built on "acceptance, love, inclusion, and passion," as she told The Fader when talking about how people are responding to these trying times.
In May, news spread that Grande had split from her boyfriend Mac Miller. Weeks later, she was seen cozying up to SNL comedian Pete Davidson and weeks after that news emerged that the pair had gotten engaged. For a few months, they were arguably the most-watched couple in the entire world. This was just one hint that the world had upgraded Grande to superstar status because, let's be honest, even if Davidson is a great comedian, he wasn't the one pulling all the attention.
"I been the fuck thru it and life’s too short to be cryptic n shit about something as beautiful as this love," Grande tweeted at the time talking about Sweetener track Pete Davidson. The album that proceeded that statement seems to revolve around that sentiment. It's empowering and positive but it never pretends to have all the answers or any rationality. "I love you / Who starts a conversation like that? Nobody but I do," she sings on R.E.M. while on Pete Davidson she laments, "My whole life got me ready for you."
Sweetener wasn't spurred on entirely by love though. It came after an incredibly dark period for Grande but instead of translating that darkness onto a record, she decided to combat it and find solace in music. This is the first record that sounds like Grande's musical DNA. Together with Pharrell and Max Martin, she crafted a musical cloud of an album that references '90s RnB but ultimately looks to the future. It's made for her vocals only and is a masterclass in lofty runs and multi-coloured harmonies.
Sweetener is the album's mission statement driven by it's gliding, radiant hook but while positivity may be the desired outcome, it's not the only mode of the record. She also tackles anxiety head-on with accessible but weighty pop songs like Breathin and the stunning closer Get Well Soon which has her wrestling with her inner demons.
On top of all that, she's also a strong, female artist and that radiates on the album's most forthright single God Is A Woman. Grande has never been so sexual and powerful. It's the work of an artist who wants to be a voice for this generation and she coupled that with a groundbreaking Dave Meyers visual that looked like a moving Sistine Chapel.
Madly in love with a worldwide number one album under her belt, it may have felt as if Grande had conquered the world but her grounding was once again shaken by the death of Mac. Bar a few Instagram posts, Grande dealt with the grief privately, once again dignified even though some of the internet had thrown unwarranted blame at Grande. A few weeks later, news broke that Grande and Davidson had split with Grande's positivity falling from her Twitter timeline.
Most would've retreated and while that's probably what Grande wanted to do, she turned to music which is also the thing that propels her into the spotlight. Surrounded by friends like Tayla Parx and Victoria Monet, she started working on music and eventually shared clips on Instagram. Soon after, she announced that she had another full album she wanted to release named Thank U, Next.
As if Grande couldn't ascend any further into superstardom in one year, she dropped Thank U, Next out of nowhere, just half-an-hour before SNL. It's a breakup song that directly name four of her exes but in true Grande style, she's chosen positivity over nastiness. It's a self-love anthem that also practices gratitude. It became her first number one in the US and broke streaming records worldwide. Then she followed it up with a teen flick-referencing video that sent the song back to number one again.
The album is still yet to arrive but at this point Grande would just be showing off if she were to collect more accolades this year. "This has been one of the best years of my career and the worst of my life," Grande said when she collected the Woman Of The Year award at the Billboard Women In Music Awards. She's a different type of superstar. She's completely transparent with everything that goes on in her life and she's not going to hide when things are messy. What she is going to do is turn it into music and try and heal through it. That kind of strength and positivity is what we all needed in 2018.
Grande is going to dominate for many years to come and with another new album on the horizon, we won't be surprised if we're back here next year writing about our 2019 Artist Of The Year...Ariana Grande.
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