Premature Evaluation: Ariana Grande thank u, next
Ariana Grande ended 2018 as the last real pop star left standing. Grande — a veteran of kids’ TV with an athletically absurd vocal range, an outsized personality, and a willingness to work within the parameters of the pop machine — was the type of star who seemed precision-engineered to dominate a few short years ago. And yet all of Grande’s peers have spent the past few years fumbling in one way or another, while anarchic SoundCloud rap scamps and hard-flexing polyglots took over the landscape. Amidst it all, Grande stood tall, cranking out the best album of her career with Sweetener and remaining a figure of pop-cult fascination. It wasn’t enough.
“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” Grande told Billboard a few months ago. “Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?” And so she did.
What’s remarkable about thank u, next, the album that follows Sweetener by a mere six months, is how effortless it is. Grande has now been with us for five years and five albums, a relentless rate of releases that none of her peers even attempt anymore. She’s adjusted and updated her aesthetic throughout, but her big singles, including the really good ones, have always felt like hyper-targeted triangulations, designed for maximum crossover success.
Maybe that’s how thank u, next should feel, too. Even before it arrived, the album had already delivered two #1 singles — Grande’s first #1 singles, as it happens. One of them is “7 Rings,” a fairly rote living-well-is-the-best-revenge conspicuous-consumption anthem with Grande twisting her voice into of the moment trap flows and hijacking a melody from a beloved theater-kid touchstone. Max Martin’s name appears in the album credits multiple times. And yet thank u, next, compared to the rest of Grande’s work, sounds positively homespun and direct. She’s talking the shit that she wants to talk, and she’s dropping it the way these boys do.
It’s all in the presentation. thank u, next is the first Ariana Grande album with no guest vocalists. When we hear other people’s voices, it’s usually in the between-songs interludes, quick bursts of conversational encouragement from Grande’s friends and family. And Grande has also mastered the Taylor Swiftian art of the ambiguous tabloid-bait lyric. After all, Sweetener was supposed to be Grande’s getting-over-some-shit album. But as everyone reading this knows, there’s been plenty of shit since that album came out. Mac Miller, Grande’s ex, died of an overdose. Shortly thereafter, she broke things off with Pete Davidson, her fiancé. Grande only mentions their names on one song: The instant-landmark title track, which has already been analyzed to death. But both of them haunt every sad and pissed-off lyric on the album. Grande has pulled off a real trick here. She’s built on what we already know about her life, and she’s used that to put together songs that feel big and cinematic and universal.
The lines presumably directed at Davidson are the best ones. Talking to a half-talented SNL cast member whose fame grew exponentially the moment she first went out in public with him, Grande sighs, “Look at you, boy, I invented you.” She’s not wrong! “Bloodline” is a song all about not wanting to have someone else in your family: “Don’t want you in my bloodline/ Just wanna have a good time.” Things get heavier when Grande sings (again, presumably) about Mac Miller or, more generally, about a love that’s always going to be out of reach: “He just comes to visit me when I’m dreaming every now and then.”
Grande’s not just singing about the dudes that have been, at various times, in her life on this album. Most of the time, she’s singing about her life. The idea of trauma comes up again and again: “I won’t say I’m feeling fine / After what I been through, I can’t lie,” “You can go ahead and call me selfish / But after all this damage, I can’t help it.” She never talks about the root of the trauma. She doesn’t need to. We all know about Mac Miller and the Manchester bombing and even the galactically dumb media shitstorm that ignited when Grande licked a donut on-camera. (That’s funny to us. It would be less funny if you were at the center of all of it.) And so Grande sings about herself as “a girl with a whole lot of baggage.” And that permeates, even when she’s being seductive: “I got a bad idea.”
But this isn’t a Bright Eyes album. Grande’s got a breezy calm when she sings all of this. Her voice is the same featherlight marvel that it’s always been. She floats effortlessly above tracks, never letting us see her sweat. Her own multi-tracked vocals sound like a big pillow, and when she flexes overtop of that, she does it with a casual elegance. The hooks are titanic and gold-plated, and sometimes they sound a bit too mercenary. (Grande practically dusts off her SNL Rihanna impression for the “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” verses.) But thank u, next isn’t a hegemonic pop statement the way Sweetener was. It registers as an off-the-cuff mixtape, which was always the point.
Even the musical choices convey that sense of careless immediacy. “Fake Smile” is built on a sample of Wendy Rene’s soul oldie “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” the same song that RZA used to build the Wu-Tang Clan classic “Tearz.” It’s not hard to imagine her seeing the Mid90s trailer and getting as hype as the rest of us. Meanwhile, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” pulls its bridge from ‘NYSYNC’s 2000 track “It Makes Me Ill.” Grande would’ve been about seven when that song came out, and ‘NYSYNC must’ve left the same kind of impression on Grande that Grande herself is leaving on today’s seven-year-olds.
thank u, next is not an ambitious pop album. It won’t reshape your idea of what pop music can be. If you’re not already in on Grande’s whole project, it won’t change your mind. But thank u, next isn’t a quickie cash-in or a throwaway, either. It’s a massively vital and important artist taking the chaos of her life — the chaos that dominates her public persona, whether she wants it to or not — and using that to make bangers. That’s no small thing. How many of these boys could do that?
thank u, next is out now on Republic.