Ariana Grande brings her Sweetener World Tour to the Xcel Energy Center tonight, but the deceptively named trek won’t just be promoting her 2018 album Sweetener. That’s because she went back to the studio almost immediately after releasing it to work on her fifth album, Thank U, Next, which was released less than six months later.
Having achieved Billboard ubiquity, Grande could fill her concerts with back-to-back hits, but she hasn’t always taken that easy route. When the 26-year-old Grande performed at the iHeart Radio Music Awards in March, she pulled out the Thank U, Next deep cut “Needy” instead of one of the album’s chart-topping singles, and album tracks “You’ll Never Know” and “Break Your Heart Right Back” have become live staples on this tour.
At the outset of the 2010s, Grande was a teen actress with roles in the Broadway musical 13 and the Nickelodeon sitcom Victorious. Her debut album, 2013’s Yours Truly, set the template for Grande as a recording artist: a singer born in the ’90s and obsessed with that decade’s pop, hip-hop, and R&B. Her soaring vocal range often earned comparisons to Mariah Carey, while she interpolated ’90s hits by Mary J. Blige (“Lovin’ It”) and Big Punisher (her breakthrough single, “The Way” featuring Mac Miller). Babyface even helped give the album’s retro R&B bent some credibility, co-writing and producing half of Yours Truly.
Big-name producers like Max Martin and Shellback have helmed many of Grande’s singles, while she’s crafted album tracks with a core team of lesser known collaborators including Tommy Brown. Now that Brown has produced her first two #1 singles, “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” you can go back and hear their creative chemistry on earlier work like “Honeymoon Avenue,” “Be Alright,” and 2015’s charming Christmas & Chill EP.
So far, the most divisive experiment of Grande’s career has been the half of Sweetener produced by veteran hitmaker Pharrell Williams. His quirky minimalism was an odd fit for Grande’s typically lush, harmony-rich sound, and the repetitive “get it, get it, hit it, hit it” commands on Sweetener’s title track inspired memes that compared the song to the ’90s Hasbro game Bop-It! But Thank U, Next presented a more intimate portrait of Grande, with vulnerable downtempo songs like “Ghostin” that seemed to be inspired by the 2018 death of her on-again-off-again boyfriend and collaborator Mac Miller. At this point, her catalog has incorporated everything from doo-wop to EDM beats, and it increasingly feels like Ariana Grande can sing just about whatever she wants.