"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 in recent months.
But it wasn't all business, all the time, of course.
In early May, Grande confirmed reports that her two-year relationship with rapper and collaborator Mac Miller had quietly come to an end. Sharing a photo with her ex-boyfriend on Instagram Stories, she wrote, "This is one of my best friends in the whole world and favorite people on the planet. I respect and adore him endlessly and am grateful to have him in my life in any form, at all times regardless of how our relationship changes or what the universe holds for each of us!" Miller, who was arrested for DUI and hit and run a week later, has not publicly spoken about his breakup with Grande; days after his run-in with the law, it was revealed that she was in a "casual" relationship with Saturday Night Live's Pete Davidson, which naturally raised some eyebrows on social media. So, on May 23, Grande responded to one of her critics on Twitter, arguing it's "absurd" to suggest "someone should stay in a toxic relationship" simply because of a shared musical history. "I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be," she wrote, adding that she had "tried to support his sobriety" and prayed for his recovery. "Shaming/blaming women for a man's inability to keep his s--t together is a very major problem," she added. "I will continue to pray from the bottom of my heart that he figures it all out," the singer wrote, "and that any other woman in this position does as well."
As it turned out, Grande's new relationship was more serious than anyone—perhaps even she—realized. Early on, Davidson spent $93,000 on an engagement ring, jeweler Greg Yuna said. "Pete called me at the end of May and said 'Look, I'm getting a ring. This is what I want.' And I told him that I had the right ring for him. He didn't tell me who it was for but told me to keep it a secret," he told E! News. "He didn't tell me anything about it." It took two weeks to make the pear-shaped, 3-carat ring. Grande first wore her ring in public onstage at iHeartRadio and 102.7 KIISFM's Wango Tango concert in L.A. June 2, and the couple continued to drop hints about their engagement for weeks on social media. Finally, when Davidson appeared on The Tonight Show June 21, he confirmed the news. "I feel like I won a contest. It's so sick," he said. As for the attention on their engagement, he wondered, "Why do people care? It's very weird." (Of course, the two stars' gushy Instagram posts have only fueled interest in their relationship.)
The ubiquitous Grande—who turns 26 today—is on the precipice of what could be one of the best years of her life. With an album on the way and a wedding in the works, she's given no indication she'll go back into hiding. In fact, she's currently featured on two artist's singles—Nicki Minaj's "Bed" and Troye Sivan's "Dance to This." And, on June 20, she released "The Light Is Coming" as a promotional single for fans who pre-order Sweetener on digital services. She is nominated in two categories at the 2018 Teen Choice Awards and will likely be a major contender when the 2018 MTV Video Music Awards nominations are revealed this summer. A tour seems inevitable, though nothing has been officially announced. (Yet.) While naysayers may question her personal and professional decisions, she seems to be in a happy place. A sweet place. Isn't that what matters? She found the light, and she's not going to dim her shine.