On Dec. 23, Ariana Grande finished her final show of the Sweetener World Tour in Los Angeles, California to momentous cheer and praise. After closing out the night with her smash hit, “thank u, next,” Grande said “I love you” to the crowd one last time as she and her backup dancers slowly descended from an elevator platform and the words “k bye for now” flashed across the big screen behind them. What all those screaming fans did not know was that mere moments later, the singer would be dropping a live album with those exact words as the title.
Now, “k bye for now (swt live)” was not a complete surprise. Grande had been teasing its release on social media for several months. However, she never gave a specific release date, only stating that it would be out before the end of the year. While this did give us a pretty small window in which to expect the live album, we had no idea it would literally come right as we were saying goodbye to the “Sweetener” and “thank u, next” eras.
This surprise release of such an un-promoted album is part of a trend among big name artists recently. Another huge star that dropped a live album to critical acclaim this year, Beyoncé (“HOMECOMING: THE LIVE ALBUM”) is a bit of a pioneer when it comes to this concept. She famously dropped her fifth, self-titled studio album with absolutely no prior promotion or announcement and it was one of the most critically and commercially successful albums of that year. She and her husband, Jay-Z, then released their joint album, “EVERYTHING IS LOVE,” in a similar fashion, premiering the music video for the lead single, “APES**T,” at the end of the last show of the European leg of their On the Run II tour before displaying in giant lettering “ALBUM OUT NOW” and releasing it to the world immediately, just like Grande did with “k bye for now (swt live).”
While this type of release can be quite risky for newer artists, it can also be very good for gigantic, well-established artists because it makes them appear legendary, like they just made it the night before and don’t even need promotion for it to be successful. Beyoncé and Jay-Z can do this easily because everyone knows them and everyone will listen to anything they put out. Grande has arguably only recently achieved this status in the past year or so. But she is there now, proved by the overnight success of her last album’s lead single, “thank u, next,” which was not promoted at all — a complete surprise. And it actually was made only a few weeks prior to its release. The song immediately debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and would stay there for several weeks before her third single off the album, “7 rings,” achieved the same status.
Even when putting aside its mystical release, “k bye for now (swt live)” is still a beautiful feat in and of itself. As someone who was lucky enough to attend one of the Sweetener World Tour shows, I can attest that the album is very much a good representation of what it was like to be there in person. While the album itself was a stringing together of several recordings from different shows (sometimes even switching in the middle of a track with ease) and has a few more songs than what was actually sung at each venue, it still feels like one show. There are some cuts in the noise of the crowd between a few of the songs, but others appear seamless and it doesn’t detract from the experience. She even kept in the prerecorded interludes like “in my head interlude (live)” and “my heart belongs to daddy (live)” to really keep those of us that could only listen from home in the moment.
The Floridian songstress’s performance is another huge part of the magic. While it is absolutely no secret that the woman can sing, she really proves herself here. The vocals are absolutely insane. She sounds just like her in-studio recordings. Even when she is singing over a track of her songs, she is not just matching it and she is never lip-syncing; she is harmonizing on top of herself or throwing in some new trick or going even higher than she did originally. My favorite example of this is during “goodnight n go (live)” (which she did not sing at my show, so I was very glad to have this), when she warbles the second “Why must you make me laugh so much?” Ugh, it gives me chills every single time. It’s a master class in live singing and keeping your audience engaged.
While the track list does include feature credits for several collaborators — Nicki Minaj, Childish Gambino and Big Sean — their voices are just recordings. None were actually present at the shows that were recorded. This was a small disappointment that could have been avoided for at least Minaj if Grande had followed in Beyoncé’s footsteps and recorded her Coachella performance for the album instead. But it hardly detracts. Instead of silence as a bodiless voice booms through the arena, Grande belts out her own versions of the missing artists’ verses on top of their recordings, giving even more spotlight to her phenomenal voice.
However, the best part of the album by far is the Grammy-winning artist’s hilarious ad-libs. While many fans complained that Grande spent little time actually talking to the crowd during the concerts, the singer seems to have understood the critiques and put her best comedic and endearing spoken moments into the album. From the subtle lyric change to “it’s hot as balls, Dublin” on “side to side (feat. Nicki Minaj) (live),” to Grande lovingly calling her screaming fans “psychos” at the end of “needy (live),” to her “oh, he’s gay” response to the question posed in “break your heart right back (feat. Childish Gambino) (live),” you truly cannot help but fall in love with Grande’s humor and humanness.
Overall, “k bye for now (swt live)” is a huge triumph for Grande. It is a treasure for fans, a dreamy experience for casual listeners, a true testament to the singer’s lasting cultural impact and growth and the perfect way to wrap up her last two album cycles. But let’s all hope the cycles can wrap up even better in January with some more Grammy wins.