Ariana Grande’s Imperial Phase As A Pop Star Began In Earnest With ‘Thank U, Next’

Getty Image/Uproxx Studio

Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” topped our critics poll songs list at No. 1. Check out the poll here and read our thoughts on the song and her current impact on culture.

As we enter 2019, this is where Ariana Grande is at: The 25-year-old ended 2018 reportedly turning down a damehood in the Queen’s annual New Year’s Honors list (she thought it was too soon), and, a few days later, started the new year with the announcement that she will become Coachella’s youngest headliner ever when the festival hits California in April.

Pop fans tend to be perpetually torn between assessing an artist’s music and their impact. Quality of the former isn’t always correlated to the latter, but the underlying reason is that one of the most fervently held tenets of poptimism is the faith that when they do collide, the result is the absolute pinnacle of what pop music can be. The Pet Shop Boys’ Neil Tennant — always a pop analyst, as well as creator, par excellence — coined the term “imperial phase” to describe the stretch in which an artist, at the peak of their game, could do no wrong: So true to themselves that they were beyond chasing trends and instead creating them; so in harmony with the rest of the world that they transcended the mere music industry and became a cultural supernova.

In 2018, Ariana Grande entered her first imperial phase. Unlike other legendary imperial phases — Madonna in the late ’80s, Lady Gaga in 2009 (and 2009 only), Beyonce from the moment of the 2013 digital drop and ongoing — Grande’s ascent didn’t seem preordained in any way. Sure, there was a sense that she had been leveling up with each album — an impeccable but niche pop debut (Yours Truly, 2013); an awkward trend-hopping follow-up that never sounded like her (My Everything, 2014); a semi-triumphant third album on which she sounded like every style at once (Dangerous Woman, 2016). But while this trajectory indicated that it was time for the biggest wave of Grande’s career anyway, what took her year into imperial territory was how she crested it, riding unexpected twists and turns to pull off an artistically and politically satisfying coming of age.

The centerpiece of Grande’s 2018 was her fourth album, Sweetener, a loved-up and heart-eyed paean to a relationship in its honeymoon phase. In this respect, it was a callback to Yours Truly, a record of maximum exuberance that burst with the all-encompassing giddiness of a teenage crush on every song — and, relatedly, it was also Grande’s most sonically and vocally coherent work since then. Signifiers of growing up, apparently mandatory for every female pop star who debuted as a teenager, tend to be painful at best, creepy at worst; and while Grande never sunk to the level of actually calling a song “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” much about the aesthetic of Dangerous Woman (from its title down) was entirely too clumsy, and disconnected from reality, in its insistence that its singer was a femme fatale.

Sweetener, though, opted out of skeevy newly sexual cliches in favor of just making the kind of songs that actual adults would make. Collaborating with Pharrell Williams for seven of the fifteen cuts was a counter-intuitive move in terms of nailing a coherent sonic backdrop for Grande, whose voice has felt constrained by ill-fitting production in the past, but Williams came through with a light touch reminiscent, at times, of his own imperial Neptunes phase. Grande responded by discovering a light touch in her own singing, reigning her acrobatics in on “R.E.M.” in favor of intoxicating layered rhymes and conversational spoken asides and drifting into a turn-of-the-century reverie on early Kelis homage “Borderline.”