Ariana Grande, the princess of pop, has dominated the genre in the 2010s, and will likely continue to be a major force for much more time to come. Sonically painting a picture of love that is both vivid and imaginative, she has undergone a major evolution from the Cat Valentine of Nickelodeon to the pop diva that will come to rest among the greats of Britney, Mariah, Whitney, Madonna, and many more.
via Republic Records
Even though Ariana had made her musical debut long before (on Victorious and with her debut album, Yours Truly) I consider My Everything to be the start of a lot more experimentation which then led to her now signature sound quality. In a personal statement the artist expressed her wishes that My Everything would not be “an extension of Yours Truly [but rather]…an evolution.” This manifests in how the album continues in 1990s R&B but expands into other genres such as EDM and dance pop (Break Free and Bang Bang), along with more mature themes. For example, while both albums keep the black-and-white aesthetic for the cover photoshoots, the direction is vastly different and shows My Everything as the “more grown up Yours Truly” that Ariana wanted. This theme of exploring more mature content continues into the Dangerous Woman era and has made the star the subject for criticism on the grounds of the more promiscuous musical direction, while maintaining such a youthful appearance and being a child actor. This is reflected in her style, as she starts performing in her signature slicked-back high ponytails and cat-ears, emphasizing her nymphet-like nature. It also marks the start of some of her recurring collaborations, such as The Weeknd, Childish Gambino, Big Sean, ASAP Rocky, Cashmere Cat. In my opinion, the single that encapsulates the era would be “Love Me Harder”. Even though it’s not the lead, and many criticize the almost competitive nature between Ariana and The Weeknd, it combines the angelic tones of Yours Truly with an R&B soundtrack. The sensual tones of The Weeknd elevate the song to the more mature style that Ariana envisioned for her sophomore album.
via Republic Records
Following the success of My Everything, Ariana began working on her next album: Moonlight in October 2014, recording during her free time on The Honeymoon Tour. She started posting Easter eggs of crescent moons and hinting that she had written a “really cool song,” before revealing the title and the fact that she wrote it about “this boy” she was dating. Ricky Alvarez, the lucky fellow, was one of Ariana’s backup dancers at the time, first appearing in the “Problem” music video. Alvarez also accompanied the singer to the infamous donut incident, possibly the only time Ariana has been in such hot water. The two supposedly dared each other to lick donuts off a tray, and then proceeded to do so resulting in the lovely quote: “What the f–k is that? I hate Americans. I hate America.” Not the best look for her. Ricky also inspired the song “Forever Boy” and “True Love” on the Christmas EP. However, unfortunately for Ricky, after recording the title single Dangerous Woman, Ariana was absolutely enamored and decided to change the title. The album continues with the black and white color scheme of its predecessors, and takes another mature step with songs that were the “most personal” Grande had released so far. Dangerous Woman emerges as a much bolder and stronger evolution of My Everything, reflected in the title track, “Into You, and “Side to Side,” along with the underrated gems that portray a more sensual side of the singer while still delivering those euphoric pop highs, and an evolved version of the romantic doo-wop style in “Moonlight,” “Forever Boy,” and “Sometimes.” Overall, the album is encapsulated well by the title single, as it paves the way for some of her bolder songs to come.
via Republic Records
Following the tragedy in Manchester on the Dangerous Woman Tour, Ariana began work on her fourth studio album: Sweetener. The album comes at a pivotal point for the artist, with a noticeable shift in her sound as she begins to explore more parts of her range, and cover themes such as anxiety (“Breathin’,” “Get Well Soon,” “No Tears Left to Cry”) which might have been influenced from her traumatic experience . To signify the aesthetic difference of Sweetener from its predecessors, Ariana made a noticeable shift in her appearance before its release, dying her hair platinum blonde and appearing on the cover with a low ponytail. She collaborated heavily with Pharell Willams on the album, with half of the album produced by him and the other half by Max Martin. The album was met with critical acclaim, breaking the US Spotify Record for biggest opening by a female artist and winning Grande her first Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album. The album also marks the era of her whirlwind romance with Pete Davidson, complete with a song bearing his name as the last on the album. I think we can all safely say that the both of them have since moved on to bigger and better things. Pete aside, the album beautifully captures the artist’s intentions to be more mature through her “lyrical content” and exploring more of her angelic tones. I think that the most notable thing about Sweetner is how it displays many unforeseen parts about the artist’s identity, specifically about her struggles with anxiety (“Breathin’”).
Thank U, Next:
via Republic Records
Thank U, Next, my personal favorite and chartbreaker, marks a return of the brunette hair and the high ponytail. Newly single Grande tells the story of her relationships in the title track along with the underlying theme of grief for her ex, Mac Miller, which was revealed to be the cause of her split from ex-fiance Pete Davidson. The album is populated with references to the deceased rapper, specifically to do with heaven and celestial objects, a theme that they both have used to reference each other (The Divine Feminine). A prominent picture is on the very lively “In My Head” which tells a story of a failed relationship though Ariana is unable to see it at the time: “You see demon I see angel” and my personal biblical favorite “They see Cain and I see Abel.” They both reference Miller’s struggles with addiction and how Ariana romanticized her relationship in her head to the point of toxicity and heartbreak. Thank U, Next is definitely a breakup album more so than any before, chronicling Ariana’s wishes for a better world, a better love story (Imagine) to the difficulties of clinginess (“Needy” and “NASA”), and bringing the cycle to a close with the questionable materialistic anthem (“7 rings”) and of course the final single that signals the artist is ready for new love, and possibly homewrecking? (Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored) Through and through, Thank U, Next synthesizes all of Ariana’s sweet spots while giving her this baddie aesthetic that I’m sure she wanted to achieve during the My Everything and Dangerous Woman days.
via Republic Records
Ariana makes a Sweetener like pivot again, adopting a 60s look of ponytails and bouffant styles to complement the classy and sweet sex-positive album. The contrast of her angelic tones and nastier lyrics on 34+35 are almost comical at times but come through nicely on the title single and “Nasty.” Ariana definitely pivoted to more R&B influences on the record, which come through on “My Hair” and “West Side,” to name a couple.
Not unlike many other artists, Ariana has gone through a total style evolution which reflects through her sound. While she hasn’t attempted a completely attempted a genre switch, a la Taylor Swift, there is no denying Positions Ari has come a long way from cat ears, stilettos, and perching on a white stool. Ariana rose to fame in my late elementary school years, so I have been one of the lucky generation members that has actually “grown up” with her. Now married and building a brand outside of music, throgh REM beauty, and her fragrances, Ariana is truly building an empire and I am excited to see the next step in her journey along with the rest of ever-evolving Arianators.