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The Evolution of Ariana Grande

When Positions first released on October 30th, I could not help but think back to all of my favorite moments in Ariana Grande’s music career. Looking at how she has changed as an artist and I have changed as a fan of her music, I listened to each song and ranked each of her six studio albums. Take a journey through the evolution of Ariana Grande’s career with me, starting with her days on Nickelodeon’s Victorious.

Early Career: Victorious and “Put Your Hearts Up”

Ariana Grande’s career on screen really took off in 2010 with her role as Cat Valentine in Nickelodeon’s Victorious. Though she was not the lead in the series, Grande showed off her talent in the occasional memorable performances, such as “Give It Up!” with Liz Gillies. Grande wanted to start her career as an independent artist, though, and that began in 2011. It is hard to talk about Grande’s first music video and single as an independent artist, “Put Your Hearts Up,” without noting how she views the single in retrospect. She has previously stated in a 2014 Rolling Stones interview that it was “the worst moment of my life. It was geared toward kids and felt so inauthentic and fake. I still have nightmares about it, and I made them hide it on my Vevo page.” From that moment, Grande decided to change her artistic direction ahead of her first album release.

‘Yours Truly’ (2013)

Grande signed with Republic Records in 2011 and began the process of creating this first album. Within the two years until its eventual release in 2013, the album (originally named Daydreamin’) went through many stylistic changes in response to Grande’s strong dislike (putting it lightly) of her first single “Put Your Hearts Up.” The resulting album, Yours Truly, takes stronger influence from R&B, doo-wop and 90’s urban pop than the traditional pop route it originally had.

Did you know? Ariana Grande reached out to Iggy Azalea to work on Yours Truly, but Azalea turned her down because she thought that she was much younger than she was due to her role on Victorious.

Listening to Yours Truly is a nostalgic moment for me, as it was one of the first albums I really cared about and purchased myself. I vividly remember listening to “Piano” on repeat back in 2013 on my way to school in the morning. When listening to the album now, it is interesting to observe how Grande’s style has changed in many ways, while some aspects have stayed consistent throughout her career. In “Daydreamin’,” which I believe to be one of the strongest songs on the album, we hear the voices of Grande’s grandparents at the end of the song. This addition of recorded and personal elements becomes a recurring theme explored in Thank U, Next.  Other favorite moments from this era and album include “Almost Is Never Enough” featuring Nathan Sykes and watching the music video for “Baby I,” where you can see how this was the era of Grande wearing shorts and stilettos.

The Verdict: Yours Truly is strong in nostalgic value, but the songs as a whole feel less personal than her later music, with more crowd-pleasing, upbeat love songs that were perfect to jumpstart her career from Nickelodeon. Thirteen-year-old me would be livid, but this album falls to last place in my ranking.

‘My Everything’ (2014)

Exploring the era of My Everything also feels like opening a time capsule of pop music of the time. I imagine Grande’s management wanted to solidify her status as a pop icon with this album, conforming to the trends at the time, including many collaborations and big-budget music videos. Remember the era when it seemed like every song featured Calvin Harris? This album exemplifies this time.

Did you know? Harry Styles wrote “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart” at age nineteen for Grande. Here is Styles’ performance of the song!

Collaborations on My Everything include Iggy Azalea, Zedd, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino, The Weeknd, A$AP Ferg, Nicki Minaj and Jessie J. Iggy Azalea finally decided to Google Grande’s age and realized they could collaborate on now classic single, “Problem.” Most of the music videos from this time are permanently engrained in my mind, with unforgettable moments from “Problem,” “One Last Time,” “Break Free” and “Bang Bang.” Grande reportedly did not originally like how “Bang Bang” sounded until she heard the verses from Jessie J and Nicki Minaj. This song is the first collaboration of many to come with Minaj. Each time I listen to “Bang Bang,” I have a distinct memory of being in my high school religion class and being asked to analyze the song for examples of sins. Personal favorites from the album include “Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart” (thank you, Harry) and “Love Me Harder.” The song “My Everything” is so heartfelt, which Grande explained is a dedication to her late grandfather.

The Verdict: The My Everything era is unforgettable in making Grande a star. Memorable collaborations, creative music videos and a deeper dive into more personal lyrics make this my third favorite album of the six.

‘Dangerous Woman’ (2016)

After My Everything, Grande is being taken as a pop star instead of just a Nickelodeon star. I associate the era of Dangerous Woman with Grande diversifying her music and personal style, becoming more of a fabulously risqué artist for the time. The themes in the album match with her role on the series, Scream Queens, which gave the artist the opportunity to prove herself outside of Victorious. Dangerous Woman is the first album that includes explicit and more sexual lyrics. Grande changed the album name (originally Moonlight) because she wanted the album to “empower her fans” with a stronger message.

Did you know? The single, “Focus” was released before the rest of the album, and due to its reception and difference in mood from the other songs, Grande decided to leave it off of the album. The song was criticized for sounding too much like Grande’s “Problem” featuring Iggy Azalea. The voice in the background of the song is actor Jamie Foxx.

Looking back at Dangerous Woman, I think I missed out on one of her strongest moments in the foundation of her career while I was busy listening to the Arctic Monkeys and twenty one pilots. Songs like “Side to Side” featuring Nicki Minaj are moments that I believe were ahead of their time. “Greedy” and “Leave Me Lonely” featuring Macy Gray show off Grande’s vocal range in a beautifully orchestral way that was not seen as clearly in her previous work. A strange moment I had while listening to the album was when I played “Be Alright” and was immediately transported back to my days working in retail where they would play that song in the fitting rooms. I had to turn it off quickly, so I cannot comment on whether or not the song holds up. Of all the songs, “Leave Me Lonely” featuring Macy Gray stands out most as it is a departure from Grande’s usual upbeat sound. The mood is much darker, and Grande’s live performance solidifies this as one of my favorites of her songs.

The Verdict: Although I did not give this album a good enough chance during its initial release, Dangerous Woman is a strong album that allowed Grande to finally break into her intended style of music. With standout singles and a great mix of genres, Dangerous Woman is my second favorite album.

‘Sweetener’ (2018)

The Sweetener era may not have been too long ago, but fans of Grande’s know that there has been extreme growth since this album released. Grande described the meaning behind the album’s name as “It’s kind of about like bringing light to a situation, or to someone’s life, or somebody else who brings light to your life, or sweetening the situation.” This was the era of Grande’s engagement and whirlwind romance with comedian Pete Davidson, which is thematically found throughout the album with upbeat and dreamy sound.

Did you know? The song “raindrops (an angel cried)” is a cover of a song from the 1950’s called “An Angel Cried” was recorded before Grande realized the original song was written by her late grandfather’s best friend, Charles Calello.

When listening to Sweetener, I am transported back to the day that the album was initially released, which was the day before I moved into college my freshman year. It was such a strange time in my life that I believe impacts my view of the album as a whole. The singles “God is a woman,” “no tears left to cry” and “successful” stand out as favorites here, and serve as unforgettable moments with the memorable music videos for “God is a woman” and “no tears left to cry.” Although many people do not like it, “the light is coming” featuring Nicki Minaj is a song that I find myself frequently going back to. The collaboration between Grande and Minaj is powerful and I wish that was found more in her more current work. I believe that this album, in some aspects, is a departure from the style that Grande is associated with, especially as it was cemented in Dangerous Woman. This may be partially to do with the strong collaboration with Pharrell Williams, who wrote and produced most of the album. This may be controversial, but to me, Sweetener is a Pharrell Williams project with Grande’s ever-impressive vocals on top. This is with exception to her more personal songs like “pete davidson,” which only Grande at this point in her life could write. Personally, I cannot get past the distracting breathing sounds that are present in most of the album and overall quick beat that does not match her previous work. Grande’s work outside of Sweetener should be noted, with “Bed” from Nicki Minaj featuring Grande and “Dance to This” from Troye Sivan featuring Grande as clear highlights.

The Verdict: Sweetener represents an era in Grande’s career that feels frozen in time, with some unforgettable visuals and moments. Taking the singles away from the rest of the album would give this era a much higher score, but as an overall piece of work, Sweetener falls to fourth place in my ranking.

‘Thank U, Next’ (2019)

Thank U, Next was a gift that seemingly came out of nowhere. Grande solidifies herself as an artist with a strong work ethic, as she creates an album from start to finish in only six months. This album felt like the perfect transition from Sweetener, an era that was slightly tainted by the tragic events following the album’s release. The mood of the album brings back a similar strength found in Dangerous Woman, with a further emphasis on R&B and trap-pop than ever before.

Did you know? In the song “bloodline,” you can hear Grande’s grandmother (“Nonna”) talking about not being able to find a hearing aid that works well for her.

As a whole, Thank U, Next is deeply personal, straying away from any collaborations to emphasize the feeling of independence that is found throughout the album. Beyond the memorable music videos paired with singles “7 rings” and “thank u, next,” are songs that have surprisingly become staples in my playlists. These include “fake smile,” “ghostin” and “bad idea,” which is one of my favorites of Grande’s discography. Her song “ghostin” is a deeply personal and emotional song that Grande originally did not want on the album, she revealed in her 2019 interview on the Zach Sang Show. Another single that most people seem to have forgotten about is “Boyfriend” featuring Social House. This song was a moment that I believe needs to be revisited. Thank U, Next tackles these deep emotions while retaining upbeat and powerful anthems that can play in our heads for years to come. I remember the excitement for each single to release and each music video to premiere at this time, knowing that whatever Grande would have to show would deliver with strength and bold authenticity.

The Verdict: Thank U, Next was a surprising hit that although was released so quickly, feels like it contains years of work, wisdom and wit. This album is hard to beat as it checks off every box that I want to see in an album, making Thank U, Next my favorite album from Grande’s career.

‘Positions’ (2020)

Positions, much like Thank U, Next, was a surprising release that was only officially announced a month in advance. Despite fans urging Grande to rest and her initially stating she would not be releasing an album during the pandemic, Positions was released on October 30, 2020. The album is the first to be officially considered a part of the R&B genre from Grande, setting it apart from her previous work. Building on the confidence and strength found in Thank U, Next, Grande focuses this album on the themes of love and sex.

Did you know? Grande is credited as a writer on every song on both Positions and Thank U, Next.

Comparing Positions to Yours Truly reveals Grande’s growth as an artist and also the confidence to create the music that she wants to, diverting from the family-friendly, pop genre. In her song, “Better Left Unsaid” from Yours Truly was originally called “Tipsy,” with the lyrics “Don’t blame me, I’m tipsy.” It was changed due to concerns it would be too explicit for her audience. Now, Grande is singing “34 + 35.” Enough said. I believe this album will grow on me as time goes on, but “positions,” “safety net” featuring Ty Dolla $ign and “pov” are my current favorites. The witty lyrics in “shut up” feel like they were crafted for some excellent TikToks to come. Grande’s second collaboration with The Weeknd, “off the table,” shows how both artists have grown since “Love Me Harder.” Positions strikes a balance of the deeper songs from Thank U, Next and a new style of upbeat, soulful songs like “love language.” The only issue I find with Positions is determining why I do not love it more, and why I do not have any standouts to add to my forever playlist as I did with Thank U, Next.

The Verdict: The success of Thank U, Next is a tough act to follow, along with the exploration of a newer genre for Grande sets Positions back on the list for me. While I have hope that it will grow on me over time, Positions currently sits in fifth place on my ranking.

Ariana Grande’s career has seen so many changes, from doo-wop to pop to R&B. What do you think of my ranking of her six studio albums? What is your ranking?

Lainey is a senior at Kent State University studying Fashion Design with a minor in Costume Design & Technology. She is so excited to be the Editor-in-Chief for Her Campus Kent State this year and to start her career in costume design for film and television. Read on for the latest on film, fashion, music and much more!
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