Ariana Grande’s live album is both a capsule and a capstone, encompassing a nine-month, 102-show tour at what might be the peak of her career.
We didn’t need an Ariana Grande live album. The sweeping, hour-and-a-half-long recording of her Sweetener world tour offers faithful renditions of recent and past hits; very little is new here, beyond a pre-recorded cover of a song from a Cole Porter musical. These are recitations, not re-interpretations. Videos circulated over the summer of Grande crying during some of her concerts, but on the recorded tracks selected for the album—stitched together from various tour stops, so that she shouts out a different city nearly every song—she is polished and composed. Even if a live album may not have been necessary, k bye for now gleams. It is both a capsule and a capstone, encompassing a nine-month, 102-show tour at what might be the peak of Grande’s career.
While k bye for now may not have much new information, it builds on our understanding of Grande as an artist. We know she has a dazzling voice, but we get to hear it swoop and pierce while the audience shrieks around her. We know she’s lurched and leaned into hip hop aesthetics; on the live album, we hear her chirp into raps over recorded features from Nicki Minaj and Big Sean. We also see different shades of some tracks. “Break up with your girlfriend i’m bored,” a song that can come across as glib and brash as its title, becomes huskier and tender. Sighs and coos trickle into spaces where production was left sparse. “Side to Side” crackles with a live band. The sing-songy flow of “7 rings” becomes more lilting and precise; after the line, “Happiness is the same price as red bottoms,” she blurts out, “Just kidding!”
While the tour focused on Sweetener and thank u, next, Grande weaves in past highlights from her catalog that demonstrate how much she’s grown. The titanic Zedd banger “Break Free” is fun, but can’t compare to the nuance and texture of a song like “God is a woman.” “Break Your Heart Right Back” sounds flimsy and disposable when followed by “NASA.” k bye for now becomes a way to track throughlines of Grande’s career: how feathery murmurs bloomed into dynamic tapestries, how flamboyant love ballads led to delicate pop anthems. One of the live album’s greatest assets is the juxtapositions created by the newly shuffled song order; thank u, next tracks glow brighter beside the softer edges of Sweetener songs. The pleas of “Needy” are more urgent and lovely when preceded by “Breathin,” a galvanic song about anxiety attacks. “Thank u, next” becomes even more stunning when “no tears left to cry” bleeds into it, coaxing a way forward through loss.
Like any live album, k bye for now strains to transmit the feeling of an actual concert, and banter about costumes and dancers is a clumsy reminder. Recordings only capture part of what illuminated the Sweetener tour—not outfit changes or neon lights, but the power of a woman confronting trauma. At a Brooklyn show this past summer, sobs slipped out of me during “get well soon.” Grande was singing about flashbacks, dissociations that wrench you out of your body—feelings I had barely described to other people, and had never heard sang back at me. In the live recording, her voice drops to a low, raw shudder. But just a few tracks later, you can hear her laugh.