An exploration of Ariana Grande’s discography sonically and lyrically.
Ever since she surfaced on the Nickelodeon hit TV series Victorious, Ariana Grande was set for stardom. As soon as she sang in front of a camera, her audience listened, and nothing was ever the same.
Music has always been a part of Ariana Grande. She starred in musicals and covered Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Adele’s songs on YouTube before she appeared on kids’ and teens’ TV screens. It wasn’t until 2011 that Grande signed a deal with Republic Records. But that was just the beginning.
Time has done Miss Grande justice, with six released studio albums and many award wins. Her music has progressed greatly— from exploring the origins of bubblegum pop to finally achieving her dream R&B record. Since her previous work, the talented singer has shown her versatility in genres and songwriting, getting more and more involved in each album’s production.
As a (wanna-be) music critic, and an Ariana stan, I will go through her discography to examine her growth. Ariana Grande has become the embodiment of owning her presence and music style, with time as her ally and her fan base as her support.
In her first studio album, Yours Truly (2013), her approach is simple and straightforward: with dream-like pop melodies and, at moments, discordant invasive sounds such as EDM beat drops, Grande features a typical young, new, love record. Vocal showcase is present no matter the genre, in slow smooth ballads (“Honeymoon Avenue,” “Tattooed Heart”) or in her magical, bubblegum pop hit singles (“Baby I,” “The Way”). The overall theme is filled with hopeless romance and, especially, a retrospective concept in music— “Piano” being a piano-to-pop funk classic, “Daydreamin'” as an upbeat jam for those with a pop sweet tooth, and a few references that reflect a few decades back (I wanna say we’re going steady like it’s nineteen fifty-four).
If Yours Truly achieves something, it’s the display of the first glimpses of R&B in her music. Ariana’s voice is suited for these beautiful depictions of past music in today’s modern style: “Right There” feels retro meets heartthrob 90s film, while “Lovin’ It” mixes the same R&B and dance-pop features with a catchy chorus. However, it goes off-beat when these updated attempts derail from the album’s concept. Although ambitious, “Better Left Unsaid” brings a hyper-pop theme that doesn’t match the energy, and “Popular Song” is fun, but once again disrupts Yours Truly’s cohesiveness, even if it’s groovy pop perfection.
That’s why the arrival of My Everything (2014) was so unprecedented. Her transition from what was supposed to be her true record (take a look at her first-ever single “Put Your Hearts Up”) to a contemporary pop build-up was smooth and felt just right. We had a taste of her pop influence in her previous album, but now, she was working with successful producers Max Martin and Shellback. Ariana’s delivery was powerful, but also, she portrayed a much more confident appearance and defining persona. First single “Problem” proved to be the missing piece in her artistry: dance-pop became her way to the top.
Her second attempt at EDM music was unexpected, but it had a clearer vision. “Break Free” was a revealing moment— she was meant to be a pop star. Her voice was full of emotion and didn’t stop her from going beyond. Her three ballads, “Best Mistake,” “Just A Little Bit of Your Heart,” and “My Everything” are tear-jerkers filled with authenticity and beautiful harmonies. Meanwhile, pop guilty pleasures “Break Your Heart Right Back,” “Love Me Harder,” and “Hands On Me” (NOT a fan favorite) balance out different sounds into the same register. My Everything is an entertaining album and, nonetheless, became her first taste of commercial success.
Ariana’s mark had already been made in the pop music scene with just two albums and multiple performances, but when she released her third studio album, Dangerous Woman (DW) (2016), her level of artistry was soon recognized. Wearing a bunny mask and tight sensual leotards, an evident shift in Grande’s music turned her into a new symbol. The Arianators—her fanbase—became more aware of a much bigger involvement in her music and influences. Ariana Grande was owning not only the music charts but also the stage.
“Dangerous Woman” and “Be Alright” were the first singles off of DW and became instant bangers, but when “Into You” was released, it became the fan-favorite pop anthem. Her sultry vocals in the verses and a powerhouse chorus made this electronic synth-pop record into one of her most acclaimed songs. This overall pop album once again explored interesting fusions, with reggae undertones (“Side to Side” with recurring feature Nicki Minaj), a funk-groovy vibe (“Greedy”), and even giving us some retro in jazz (“I Don’t Care”) and R&B (“Leave Me Lonely,” “Sometimes”).
Overall, Ariana Grande gave us one of her best eras to date, with amazing concert performances and a sold-out tour. The choreographies and set design in the Dangerous Woman Tour, plus her music videos, were widely praised by fans and critics. Nonetheless, things changed for the then 23-year-old singer.
On May 22nd, 2017, a terrorist attack in Manchester, England became the catalyst of Grande’s hiatus from the public media. She needed time to grieve and rehabilitate herself. In the meantime, she went to the studio, and Sweetener (2018) was born.
This elaborate piece of art was soon defined by new writing credits composed mainly of Grande herself and a production team like never before. Hit single “no tears left to cry” was her first release during the era, and it was highly acclaimed for its sweet melodies contrasted by its soulful trap fusion. Her heavenly harmonies sung of a hopeful chance for a new start.
If words could describe Sweetener, it would be a breath of fresh air. Innovative, and a hands-on, collaborative project, Ariana Grande found peace in her own worries. “breathin” is an effortless power-pop grower about self-alleviating, while “better off” is assuring—she reaffirms her decisions, featuring a soulful arrangement—and “get well soon” represents her train of thought during an anxiety attack.
Sweetener is ambitious not only because of her teamwork, which introduces Pharrell Williams and his R&B and groovy trap influences, and SocialHouse— while frequent collaborators Victoria Monét, Ilya Salmanzadeh, TBHits, and Max Martin return. Grande’s fourth studio album shines because it’s vulnerable and emotional. Her genre exploration feels genuine, with funk vibes in “blazed,” electronic R&B sounds featured in both title track “sweetener” and “successful,” and “r.e.m.” is such a dream to me.
After five months and twenty-two days of Sweetener’s release, her fifth studio album was already in the works. The unexpected release of the “thank u, next” single previewed an era of many selves: self-love, self-care, and being self-ish. Ariana Grande connects with her audience this time through relatability. “Needy” reflects on her whimsy and affectionate self, “ghostin” empathizes with her past relationship, and the titled track examines her growth throughout her love life.
thank u, next (2019) is her safest album, feeling nostalgic to her previous records and an open examination of what could have been. “imagine” is another addition to her R&B repertoire, “bloodline’’ feels like a My Everything rework track with brass, and “make up” revisits her bubblegum pop days.
In this introspection, Grande always tries to bring new additions to her albums. The production for “NASA” is simple, but straightforward lyrically. “fake smile” is low-key very upbeat with upsetting verses well-adjusted to the album’s theme, and “bad idea” teases a trap-infused track and vocal add-ons, a bridge, and outro production that are out of this world.
Finally, Miss Grande took a well-deserved break, or so we thought. Quarantine has allowed artists to create new records from the comfort of their homes. Our young pop star did the same, and Positions (2020) was announced with a two-week notice. A countdown appeared on her website, expecting both her most recent single, title-tracked, on October 20th, with her album releasing a week later.
The single “positions” sounded familiar, almost like the song was a thank u, next reject. Its trap undertones were present, but this time, the addition of strings was a surprisingly sweet addition. On October 27th, opinions became divided. Ariana had released her sixth studio album one year and eight months after the last one, but this time, her music was (sorta) different.
Positions is considered the culmination of three albums of exploration, both musically and personally. Accompanied by constant string arrangements and R&B mixings, the record is a fun, sensual journey of acceptance and devotion to her loved one. “34+35” is a goofy, explicit track with a very clear innuendo, “safety net” dabbles in authentic R&B/soul in doubting a relationship, and “my hair” is an intimate jazz confessional with an extraordinary vocal outro.
Still, previous production references were in all positions. “just like magic’’ has a dream-pop essence, while “love language” resembles a more R&B upbeat jazz style. Grande swiftly incorporates every one of her musical goals into her discography. As an artist whose dream was to sing R&B, watching the rise of Ariana Grande seems unreal.
Throughout many years of trajectory, Grande grew into a fierce, strong and independent artist and performer. If anything, Ariana Grande learns from her experiences and paves the way for other pop singers. With a Netflix documentary out, and several released collaborations, she has proven to be one of the most successful artists of the past decade.
She is aware of her setbacks and is admired for her innovative way of breaking these themes into song. You could say nobody is doing it quite like her. Miss Grande has entered the room and she is staying for a long time.