“The Light Is Coming” isn’t just a song title—it’s a promise.
It’s been just over a year since Ariana Grande endured the worst night of her life, when a terrorist detonated a bomb outside her concert in Manchester, England, killing 22 fans and injuring more than 500 others. She mobilized in the immediate aftermath, organizing a tribute concert that raised over $13 million for the We Love Manchester Emergency Fund. Grande exiled herself in the months that followed, emerging only for a footwear event in Hong Kong.
All the while, the pop princess quietly began recording Sweetener, her fourth studio album for Republic Records. Grande, whose prior hits include “Bang Bang,” “Break Free,” “Dangerous Woman,” “Focus,” “Into You,” “Love Me Harder,” “One Last Time,” “Problem,” “Side to Side” and “The Way,” was deeply affected by the tragedy, and it changed the direction of her new album. “When I started to take care of myself more, then came balance, and freedom and joy. It poured out into the music. I felt more inclined to tap into my feelings because I was spending more time with them. I was talking about them more,” she told TIME. “I was in therapy more.”
In April, Grande released “No Tears Left to Cry,” the album’s lead single, to critical acclaim. Calling it “timeless,” The Guardian‘s Laura Snapes praised the song for being “one of the most joyful, defiant celebrations of pop.” Similarly, Pitchfork‘s Meaghan Garvey said the track is “striking in its optimism,” while Variety‘s Chris Willman called it “the breeziest, most danceable kind of post-traumatic recovery anthem.” Grande co-wrote the song with Savan Kotecha and its producers Ilya and Max Martin, setting the tone for a new era. “The intro is slow, and then it picks up,” Grande told Sam Lansky, TIME‘s West Coast editor. “And it’s about picking things up.”
As “No Tears Left to Cry” climbed the charts, Grande and her team carefully plotted her return to the spotlight. She first surprised fans by turning up during Kygo‘s set at Coachella, then opened the 2018 Billboard Music Awards and later took over an episode of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon (both of which aired on NBC, E!’s sister network). She also told Jimmy Fallon she’s planning to do “something special” on the 20th of each month leading up to her album’s Aug. 17 release. And, when she wasn’t sharing snippets of her new material on social media, she was interacting with fans on a more regular basis than she’d been…