The old-school album rollout involved a pre-announced street date and a lead single or two released over a couple of months. The anticipation was supposed to stoke fan fervor and a popular single would encourage them to buy a full-length. For years, the rules were simple: If one or both of the singles did well, the artist was cleared for album release. If the single fared poorly, the artist might get his or her release date pushed back.
That process has almost completely fallen apart in the streaming era. Now, rollouts often consist of an endless stream of singles and EPs, a keep-throwing-everything-against-the-damn-wall approach with no album guaranteed. The flip side is the midnight ambush release, but this play for seizing and holding the internet’s attention has become so common it’s partially defeated its purpose. For example, Twitter reported that Beyonce’s 2016 surprise, Lemonade, generated 4.1 million tweets in less than 48 hours; two years later, her joint surprise album Everything Is Love with Jay-Z generated just 2.1 million. Part of that decline likely has to due with surprise-release-fatigue.
There is, however, one artist for whom these new rules do not seem to apply. So far this year, Ariana Grande executed a perfect traditional rollout of her Sweetener album, starting a campaign in April that led slowly but surely to a Number One debut in August. But her surprise release of “Thank U, Next” six days ago showed that an ambush can also still be effective: The single has been streamed more than twice the amount of any other song this week. That’s good for one of the top ten biggest streaming weeks of the year and, tellingly, Grande’s song is the only entry on that list that doesn’t — and won’t — get played on rap radio.
Grande started her bulldozing run with “No Tears Left to Cry,” a single that succeeded in spite — or because of — its oddity. The week of that track’s release, four of the top five entries on Billboard’s Pop Songs chart were cross-genre collaborations; the fifth was a heart-on-sleeve ballad from Camila Cabello. Grande flew solo on “No Tears Left to Cry,” and instead of serving up a ballad, she pushed the tempo towards the dancefloor, pulling in synths and chord progressions that evoked late Nineties crossover house music. The pop machine rewarded Grande for her boldness, and “No Tears to Cry” went Number One at radio the week of July 21.
Just before “No Tears to Cry” topped out, Grande released her second official single, “God Is a Woman.” This track embraced contemporary hip-hop, meaning that it was much more in line with the rest of modern pop. It didn’t start quite as strongly as “No Tears to Cry” — Number 11 on the Hot instead of Number Three — but since the lead single had performed so well on radio, “God Is a Woman” started to move quickly as well. This meant that the week Grande released Sweetener, she had two different tracks in the top twenty on the pop airwaves. That helped her achieve a personal best opening week with 231,000 albums sold.
Unlike many of her pop peers, though, Grande isn’t primarily dependent on radio support to do big numbers. Sweetener also amassed 126.7 million streams during its opening week, which Billboard reported was the largest streaming week in history for any non-hip-hop album made by a woman. So it made sense last month when Grande formally announced via Twitter that she was adopting the streaming-friendly release schedule more common in rap, R&B and reggaeton: “I just wanna make music and drop it whenever,” she wrote. “I don’t want to conform to the like … ‘routine’ or like ‘formula’ anymore.”
This set the table for Grande’s current display of commercial domination. She’s continuing to push “God Is a Woman” at pop radio, where it reached Number One this week, thankfully ending a monotonous, month-plus run for Five Seconds of Summer. At the same time, Grande has already followed that release with “Breathin,” the type of pancake-flat-drums-and-sky-high-hook Eighties-ish record that has served her well in the past. (It’s a lot like her old hit “Love Me Harder,” and it has two of the same co-writers, Savan Kotecha and Peter Svensson.) “Breathin” is now in the Top Ten at radio as well, which means that between those two songs alone, she’s reaching more than 110 million people weekly through the airwaves.
To capture the the few listeners who hadn’t run into one of those tracks already — and to satisfy her “drop it whenever” imperative — Grande also released “Thank U, Next” last Saturday with little warning. The titillating references to a stream of old flames and the curt, dismissive hook powered this one to 45.7 million streams. Only Drake has put songs this year with more streams on their opening weeks (“God’s Plan” and “Nonstop”). Grande’s tally beat out other massive hits like Post Malone’s “Psycho” and Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” Billboard is predicting that she will hit Number One on the Hot 100 next week, offering a nice change of pace after a lengthy reign by Maroon 5. “Breathin” will climb the chart too, thanks to the release of its new video, which has already pulled in over 12 million views.
This blitz of commercially successful content from a pop star is all a good sign: Music is not as fun when rappers are just competing with themselves.