Illustration by Sophia Bentley, University of Michigan

Ten years ago, a 20-year-old Ariana Grande released her debut studio album, “Yours Truly.” Since then, she’s spent the entirety of her twenties making a name for herself as one of pop’s premier vocalists, with her four-octave range being compared to the likes of both Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. Six albums later, Grande’s first decade in the music industry is marked with smash hits and record-breaking successes that many can only dream of accomplishing. Album by album, each of her projects remain stellar reflections of both personal and musical growth.

“Yours Truly,” 2013
Opening with a heaven-sent string arrangement, “Honeymoon Avenue” kicks off Grande’s debut album with a sweet uptempo ballad. This song represents much of the album’s makeup: R&B-influenced radio pop that nods to hip-hop along the way. With five of the twelve songs being produced by legendary R&B auteur Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, the album maintains a keen sense of classic R&B that suits Grande’s voice perfectly. This year, for its 10th anniversary, the album was re-released with six live versions of fan-favorite tracks.
With Grande being just 20 years old at the time of release, there is a definite “Radio Disney” feel to several of the songs, including the singles “Baby I” and “Right There.” This album declared her aim to define herself outside of her success on Nickelodeon’s “Victorious,” a goal which was largely achieved, despite the occasional juvenile sound.
The deep cut song “You’ll Never Know” shows off Grande’s early emotional maturity, paired with bouncy production by Babyface that makes it an instant classic. Like much of the album, the song sounds straight out of 2013, but in the best way possible.

“My Everything,” 2015
Ariana Grande’s sophomore album, “My Everything,” is her most commercially crafted release by far. The majority of the songs are very intentionally crafted for radio, with the likely goal of earning career-defining hits. The Weeknd, Zedd, Iggy Azalea, A$AP Ferg, Cashmere Cat, Childish Gambino and Big Sean all lend their voices across the standard album’s 12 tracks, making this album her most collaborative to date.
“My Everything” builds upon the groundwork created by “Yours Truly” to establish Grande as a musical force beyond her Nickelodeon ex-act status. Its themes are much more mature and reference failed relationships (“Best Mistake” and “Why Try”), sex (“Hands On Me”) and sentimental love (“My Everything”). The emotional maturity displayed in songs like “One Last Time” and the Harry Styles-penned “Just A Little Bit of Your Heart” pioneer the slow but sure evolution Grande would continue on for the next several years.

“Dangerous Woman,” 2016
2016’s “Dangerous Woman” found Ariana Grande stepping into adulthood. At the time of the album’s release, Grande had never seemed more sure of herself as a powerful young woman in the public eye. The album’s title track is a smoldering jam-out, delivering sizzling lyrics while stretching the singer’s voice to its furthest capabilities. “Nothin’ to prove and I’m bulletproof and/Know what I’m doing,” Grande passionately sings. “I wanna savor, save it for later/The taste of flavor, ‘cause I’m a taker.”
Grande compiles an impressive set of equally sweet and sultry songs, with “Moonlight” and “Sometimes” offering sentimental confessions of infatuation while “Greedy” and “Into You” bring the house down with red-hot vocal demonstrations. One of the album’s standouts remains the short but sweet fan favorite, “Be Alright.” Though she would later make a habit of weaving uplifting messages into her music, this “Dangerous Woman” cut marked the start of her use of music to disarm listener’s anxieties and worries. Not to mention, the song’s live performance on tour, complete with voguing, solidified its status as an unofficial queer anthem.

“Sweetener,” 2018
For most female pop stars, reinvention is inevitable. Grande’s rebirth came in 2018 with her gleaming fourth studio album, “Sweetener.” Focused on themes of rebirth, maturity and life after heartache, this album remains her most forward-thinking and artistically free.
The reinvention presented on this album is both sonic and visual. “Sweetener” was Grande’s very first album cover to be shot in color, as opposed to black and white, and featured a platinum blonde hairstyle that starkly contrasted against her signature deep brown locks.
Being largely co-written and produced by Pharrell Williams, the album’s sound greatly differed from Grande’s previous three projects. “I’ve played the game…I’ve made the pop bangers for a while, and like, I’ve done that. I wanted to do something different, something that felt a little bit more like home,” she shared with Apple Music’s Ebro Darden in 2018. The experimental sound of the album paid off, earning Grande her first Grammy in 2019 for “Best Pop Vocal Album.”
The album is her most comprehensive project, taking influence from contemporary R&B, alternative, hip-hop and dance-pop. The title track encapsulates the core theme of the record: bringing the “bitter taste to a halt” when “life deals us cards.” Album closer “get well soon” (which clocks in at 5:22, a nod to the date of the attack on her 2017 Manchester concert) ends things on a high note — quite literally, with the ding of a bell rounding things out. The song acts as the unofficial anthem for those burdened by anxiety, reminding listeners that “When you need someone to pull you out the bubble/I’ll be right there just to hug you.”

“thank u, next,” 2019
Released just under six months after “Sweetener,” Grande’s fifth studio album, “thank u, next,” was largely a response to the personal upheaval in the star’s life following her breakup with Pete Davidson and the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller. She struggles to keep her spirits up across the 12 tracks, which leads to her taking stock of past relationships.
Despite the dreary disposition found in several of the songs, the album’s lead single and title track is in fact a hopeful look toward the future. “Even almost got married/And for Pete, I’m so thankful/Wish I could say ‘thank you’ to Malcolm/‘Cause he was an angel,” she sings. The album’s sound is rooted in dreamy alternative R&B and hip-hop that captured a wider audience than Grande had ever had before.
This spike in Grande’s popularity is evidenced by her occupying the top three spots on the Billboard Hot 100 with “thank u, next,” “7 rings” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” This accomplishment made her the first artist to achieve this since the Beatles in 1964. This achievement alone goes to show just how massive Ariana Grande’s position in music had become by 2019.

“Positions,” 2020
Just in time for the very first COVID-era Halloween, Grande treated fans to her sixth studio album, “Positions.” The album is an amalgamation of all of the musical styles she’d experimented with previously. Several of the songs sound like more cheerful “thank you, next” outtakes, but each works to differentiate itself from her past endeavors. Grande’s soulful voice lays atop triumphant string arrangements and her signature hip-hop pop instrumentation throughout.
Lighthearted songs like “34+35,” “six thirty” and “just like magic” come across as perhaps overly simple at times, but the album is not hailed for these tracks. The entrancing moments arrive with “my hair” and “pov,” which give room to Grande’s larger-than-life voice. The former welcomes the return of her much-beloved whistle register and the latter shows off her impressive belting range.
The album’s release coincided with Grande’s budding relationship with her now-husband, Dalton Gomez. The core of this era and album is the message that love persists after tragedy and heartbreak. Ariana Grande’s been through hell and back, but at the end of it all she came out stronger.
Regardless of whether Grande continues to focus her attention on her R.E.M Beauty line or her role as Glinda in the “Wicked” film adaptation, she’s given audiences a decade of non-stop hits and artistic growth that will continue to define her as one of pop’s most preeminent voices.

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