The last time I found myself pushing through a GA crowd of diehard fans to get as close as possible to a festival stage, it was the summer of 2013 and Kanye West was debuting songs off a new project that we’d eventually learn was called Yeezus. While the new album that Ariana Grande is performing songs from is already out, it feels like Thank U, Next may end up having the same kind of ripple effect that Kanye’s noise-inflected rage-rap had six years ago. Though the young singer has released four albums of material before this fifth, groundbreaking record came out in early 2019, something seems to have shifted within the culture — and within her — on this latest project.
Coming on the heels of Sweetener, her stunning pop synthesis of aftermath and recovery following a terrorist attack at one of her shows in Manchester during 2017, Thank U, Next is primarily inspired by the tragically unexpected death of her longtime collaborator, friend, and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, which itself may or may not have led to the dissolution of her lightning-fast engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. The resulting album’s compelling, if not heartbreaking, storylines took a brazen, no-holds-barred lyrical approach that uses the ballsiness of hip-hop and trap beats to lay bare Ariana’s deepest fears and boldest admissions. It was all in my head. I wish he was here instead. I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.
All that and more comes through on her Sweetener world tour, which kicked off before Coachella began but promised to culminate and crest in a Sunday night closing set at the biggest festival in the music industry. Knowing full well the pressure that an event like this brings, Ariana brought her best in return and absolutely lived up to the expectations that were placed upon her. As the youngest headliner to ever perform at Coachella — and the youngest woman by far — Ari was following up Beyonce’s own historical feat as the first Black woman to headline the event in 2018, while simultaneously helping make up for the fact that a scheme to book Kanye himself had fallen through last minute. If the mention of those two names in a single sentence would’ve cowed a less worthy star, they only catapulted Ariana into performing as her best, highest self.
Kicking off the night with her acapella rendition of the Four Seasons track “Raindrops (An Angel Cried),” and moving immediately into the Last Supper styled choreography of “God Is A Woman” first debuted at the 2018 VMAs, it only took one current track, “Bad Idea,” before Grande brought out her first guest — none other than NSYNC. Younger fans may not have drawn the lyrical correlation between Grande’s pouty “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” and the boy band’s “It Makes Me Ill,” but bringing them out to mash up the former with the latter, the connection was spelled out for anyone lacking knowledge. Prefacing the next collab with the probably not exaggerated superlative “I’ve been practicing for this moment my whole life,” Grande and the crew — sans Timberlake of course, who was another rumored headliner for the fest — launched into a joint version of “Tearing Up My Heart.”
After such a huge pop culture moment came so early on in the set, it’d be easy to assume no other guests would be joining Grande, but it only took a few more songs — “R.E.M.” and the stunning title track from Sweetener among them — before she got Nicki Minaj onstage for a pair of their joint songs, “Side To Side” and “Bang Bang.” Minaj could’ve, and should’ve, used this opportunity to recover from some of her lower moments in 2018, but had difficulties with her mic, and seemed awkward and anxious while Ariana tried to create enough energy to carry both of them. It felt like a grand gesture from a star at the top of her game, but the fell short for an artist who seems to be no longer able to perform on Grande’s level.
The same could be said about the appearance of Diddy and Mase, who came out to carry the bulk of a Notorious B.I.G. cover, “Mo Money Mo Problems,” which Ariana interpolated early in her career on the Childish Gambino-featuring cut, “Break Your Heart Right Back” off her 2014 album My Everything. If Gambino had stuck around the festival after his Friday night spectacle, this would’ve been a fascinating moment for two headliners to come together, instead, it seemed to highlight the age and energy gap between two of rap’s elder statesman and the woman who is picking up the genre’s creative mantle and running in the most interesting direction.
Sure, that may sound like hyperbole to hip-hop stalwarts, but consider that right before this on “7 Rings” — Ariana’s much-discussed foray into straight-up rapping — the festival crowd was the loudest they’d been all weekend long. And as of writing this, the song completed its eighth week in the Billboard No. 1 slot (Only to be replaced by another genre upstart, Lil Nas X’s tongue-in-cheek country track, “Old Town Road”). On either side of the fence, the people muttering and grumbling at these young artists who are gleefully toying with the bounds of genre are the only real losers — the rest of us win.
After paying to these rap legends homage — which it’s also worth noting, Gambino showed no interest in doing — Grande launched into my personal favorite Thank U, Next and Sweetener cuts back to back: “NASA,” an ode to healthy relationship boundaries, and the universe itself, and “Goodnight N Go,” a faithful, playful Imogen Heap cover. But even these beloved, deeper cuts are so easily eclipsed by her supernova hits, which concluded the set in short and sweet succession — “Break Free,” “No Tears Left To Cry,” and the track that started this whole era, “Thank U, Next.” All three are characterized by fierce independence, tremendous resilience, and a certain sense of tender, freeing grace that remains singular to Ariana alone in this age of pop pettiness.
In 2013 Kanye retooled rap’s molten core to hiss with industrial noise, setting a whole generation of hip-hop toward steely machination and visceral anguish. It was a necessary turn, at the time, and a stunning juxtaposition to the bubble of complacency that had formed. In the same way, Ariana’s insistence on inclusion and gracious generosity in a game that favors cutthroat moves just might have that same kind of cultural impact on a generation of new stars. And if it does, remember that you saw it first at Coachella.