When Ariana Grande first showed up on the radio, she came off like the ultimate teen-pop robo-princess, a bubblegum diva wearing a pair of kitten ears. She relished the role of the coy starlet, flashing her Mini Mariah pipes, Bardot ponytail and Edie Sedgwick fashion sense. In her videos, she kept trying to sing with her fingers in her mouth. Her smizing never stopped, even when delivering the kind of dippy lyrics only Swedish producers could write. (“I only wanna die alive” — really?) Yet she was so great at this role, nobody really asked for more. In a way, the moment that summed her up was her 2014 disco hit “Break Free,” when she belted that ridiculous hook: “Now that I’ve become who I really are.”
Who knew she’d blow up into a world-beating artist fighting to reshape the whole idea of how a pop star operates? It turns out that under the surface, Grande is gloriously weird at heart — watching her now is like the scene in the horror movie where the prom queen whips out an ax. And she keeps making history, topping the triumph of Sweetener with the chaser “thank u, next,” which could have been petty celebrity shade yet felt more like her philosophical statement. After her massive 2018, she’s hunting even bigger game in 2019, with her world tour and new music ready to roll. Nobody can predict her next move. All we know is that Grande is finally becoming who she really are.
Her new strategy is to drop songs whenever she feels like it, or whenever she has something to say — a pop queen flexing the spontaneity of a hip-hop artist. She quickly followed “thank u, next” with “Imagine,” and her next single, “7 Rings,” is due out on the 18th. “My dream has always been to be . . . obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” she told Billboard recently. “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.’ ”
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Ari always seemed like she could have been designed in a lab as the perfect pop droid, with the coldblooded poise of a Nickelodeon child actress. Everything about her was pure showbiz, like the way she got discovered by Gloria Estefan on a cruise ship karaokeing “My Heart Will Go On.” She could team up with Nicki Minaj to demand oral sex in “Get on Your Knees,” then don a pair of reindeer antlers to sing “Santa Tell Me” for the kiddies. She even managed to stir up controversy with a doughnut-licking scandal.
But then she was forced to grow up in public with a tragedy: the terrorist bombing at her 2017 concert in Manchester, England. She did more than just rise to the occasion — she exuded gravitas and compassion, leading a benefit concert that even inspired a crank like Liam Gallagher to get up and sing “Wonderwall.” Sweetener combined her new maturity with a celebrity whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson of Saturday Night Live. When they split, she summed up where her head was at: “Remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought.”
Her 2018 hit “God Is a Woman” seemed as far as she could go — especially the video where she sits on top of the world and lovingly fingers it, while Madonna recites the Samuel L. Jackson Pulp Fiction speech from Ezekiel 25:17. But she’s already left it behind. “thank u, next” was a Saturday-night special, dropped as a surprise right before her ex went on the air with SNL. It was graceful, moving, soulful, not just her best song ever but a Number One hit that repositioned her as an artist. It doesn’t bring the aggro of a rap diss track, but it has the off-the-dome energy of one, like Meek Mill roasting Drake in “Wanna Know” and Drake slamming back with “Charged Up” and “Back to Back.”
Ari’s been bragging that she wrote her next LP in a week — she’s summed it up as “feminine energy and champagne and music and laughter and crying.” There was always something deliciously unscripted about her, even when every move was choreographed — so many hints that under the veneer, she was authentically crazed. Now she’s letting it all hang out. In other words, as she once sang: This is the part where she breaks free.