May 19, 2019
It's not every day that the world's reigning pop star releases two career-defining albums in the span of six months. It's also not every day that she performs the bulk of those releases to a rabid, sold out Houston crowd. Near the end of last night's show, Ariana Grande called out another one-night-only occasion.
"I know tonight's a big night for 'Game of Thrones' finale, so I appreciate you being here. Nobody check their phones till they get home. Anyway, thank you for choosing to be with me. Love you guys. This was amazing. This next song we're gonna do is 'no tears left to cry.' Love you."
It was the only moment from Grande that indicated a world outside of the Sweetener World Tour, a self contained, dimly lit universe where the petite, ponytailed, knee-high high heeled, dangerous woman parades through hits, stays on script, and sings like her life depends on it. And that voice - the silky, resonant, unparalleled beast from the upper echelons of pop music - was in fine form. Yes, she sings live; sure, there's a backing track to accompany; of course, she augments those familiar melodies from her discography with an endless reservoir of adventurous, lightning-strike vocal runs.
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Grande's voice resounded throughout the cavernous Toyota Center during a brief, offstage a cappella rendition of "raindrops (an angel cried)" before emerging from underneath the stage, seated at the center of a Last Supper-esque table, surrounded by an army of
disciples dancers and backed by a four-piece band for a burning performance of set opener "God is a woman," complete with whistle tones (very high notes) that the audience drowned out with their roaring approval. During thank u, next cut "bad idea," she danced atop the table, dismissing a male dancer - likely representing a love interest - for the likes of a female dancer at the song's end. She rounded out the scorching opening trilogy of the night with "break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored" while she and her posse danced around chairs on the stage's oval shaped runway - because what would a pop concert be without chair dancing or runways that envelop half of the arena floor?
The production housed a massive backdrop screen, a handful of smaller screens for closeups of the performer, and two orbs - one a permanent main-stage fixture, the other a temporary planet which descended over the crowd standing inside of the stage's runway. The main-stage orb turned into a moon for "7 rings," which brought a life-sized pink car with "Houston" graffitied on its driver's door onstage. Strategically placed drum fills behind the lyrics "Wearing a ring but ain't gon' be no 'Mrs.'" felt like a subtle, though dramatic, musical reference to Grande's relatively newfound single status. After drenching the stage in dollar bills with a cash cannon, Grande sat on the roof of the car as it descended beneath the stage, back of hand on her forehead as if exhausted from the gluttony.
Ditching the traditional theatrical narrative previous pop tours have built themselves around, the Sweetener World Tour opts to paint a portrait of its dichotomous central character: someone alone, surrounded by people. On her own, she's both human and alien without contemporary. In a group, she's the center of attention that's hard to identify.
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Placing Grande in flux between finely tuned choreographed numbers ("fake smile," "bloodline," "the light is coming") and authentically powerful solo moments (an a cappella introduction of "breathin," and a particularly stirring performance of "Dangerous Woman") spoke more volumes about her recent, well documented personal trials than any between-song banter could have. thank u, next already lyrically covers that. And based on the way the crowd chanted "Thank U, Next!" before its encore moment last night, a lighthearted song rooted in incomprehensible trauma might be all they need to hear from their pop star at the moment.
The Opener: Fifth Harmony alum and Houston native Normani warmed up the crowd with sultry vocals, Beyoncé-influenced dance breaks and Texas-sized smiles. Still early into her solo career, her opening set understandably leaned on covers, collaborations, and a Fifth Harmony medley. The crowd, especially packed for an opener at Toyota Center, didn't mind. They ate up every dance move, sang along to Fifth Harmony throwbacks, and approved of her James Harden jersey. Radio hits "Dancing with a Stranger" and "Love Lies" rounded out her performance, offering a glimpse into what her future shows might look like with a few more hits to her name.
raindrops (an angel cried)
God is a woman
break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored
Side to Side
Love Me Harder
You'll Never Know
Break Your Heart Right Back
get well soon
in my head
the light is coming
no tears left to cry
thank u, next