Though greatly indebted to vocal powerhouses of ‘90s soul and R&B, like Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, Ariana Grande is undoubtedly an artist of the moment. A pop star invested in and in tune with “the now.” She currently boasts the most worldwide monthly listeners on Spotify, over 60 million Twitter followers, and is a near-household name all over the globe. Her singing style, lyric phrasing, occasional adlibs and newfound likeness for trap beats place her on trend and top-of-mind with both millenial and Gen Z cohorts.
Her second studio release in the span of seven months, thank u, next is another commercial triumph and Grande’s most definitive body of work as an artist, but it’s impossible to summarize the feelings and events that inform her new album without mentioning her last LP. Sweetener, released in August of 2018, was and still is magnetic. The record was a milestone for Grande, marking a highly anticipated return to the spotlight after a devastating concert experience, becoming by far her most personal album to date and receiving widespread acclaim amongst critics and fans. Not quite your run-of-the-mill pop record.
Sweetener is a beautiful sounding album; it’s got swagger, some great features and Grande’s chromatic voice shines all over it. Beneath the slick aesthetic are the musings of a young girl slash global star finding her footing again. On top of the after-effects of the Manchester bombing, Grande’s romantic endeavors with Mac Miller and Pete Davidson had a major influence on her songwriting and mindstate heading into the project (there’s even a track titled after Davidson).
Similar to the way in which her highly public personal life permeated Sweetener, the grief of Miller’s tragic overdose in September and the toll it took on Ariana, shapes the mood of many tracks on thank u, next. By mainstream pop standards, it’s a very dark and moody record; an immersive listening experience that contemplates Grande’s current state of self-indulgence, depression and commercial stardom.
From front to back, the album’s central theme is Grande’s own troubles and appeasement. The record is loaded with moments of both extreme confidence and insecurity. “needy” is a hypnotic ode to self-admitted high maintenance. The minimalist production directs all the attention to Grande’s earnest vocals. “Sorry if I’m up and down a lot, sorry that I think I’m not enough,” she sings. It’s one of many instances where she sounds like she’s shrugging off her personal flaws with a ‘fuck it’ attitude and a broken smile.
The following track “NASA” flips the script on the same narrative, with Grande seeking independence and solo time over a hyphy, synth-laden beat. The densely-layered background vocals add a full-bodied texture to the track and the chorus is perhaps the catchiest refrain on the album. Even more melodic is the braggadocious trap cut “7 rings,” which drew heavy criticism upon its release for plagiarizing a Princess Nokia song from 2017. In listening to both tracks, it’s pretty evident that Nokia was an obvious source of inspiration (and literal ideas) for Grande, but even so, the song is still well-produced and Ariana’s flow is executed to perfection.
Other radio-friendly numbers include the murky “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” the spindling guitar-trap banger “bad idea” and the inescapable breakup anthem “thank u, next.” While the entire album offers a lot of Top 40 viability, it’s the carefully crafted, more adventurous songs that leave the biggest impression. “fake smile” samples Wendy Rene’s iconic “After Laughter” (originally made famous by Wu-Tang Clan on “Tearz”), turning Grande’s contemporary pop prowess into an eerie soul waltz. Her emphatic singing ends the song with a boom.
The emotional apex of the album comes on “ghostin,” an unbearably sad ballad that pulls into context the aftermath of Mac Miller’s death and how it directly affected and ultimately ended Grande’s engagement to Pete Davidson. The ambient sound pallet she’s working with on this track (courtesy of Max Martin and ILYA) is unlike anything else she’s ever done before and flirts heavily with psychedelic pop, demonstrating just how potent a solid base level of talent can be when paired with dynamic production, especially for a billboard mainstay like Grande.
thank u, next also reeks of lust and shameless desire. On “imagine,” Grande conjures up a hedonistic fantasy to her lover, supplementing her balladry skills with an inviting promiscuity. Her self-centered and sexual mission continues on “make up”; lines like, “I might break up with you, just to make up with you…the way you be screamin’ my name make me want to make love to you,” portray her as certifiably crazy, though she does playfully redeem herself later in the same verse. “At the end of the day, boy you know I’m about to wake up with you.”
As Ariana Grande continues to heal from past traumas, she truly seems to be hitting her stride as an artist. She’s working through her demons, embracing her flaws and reveling in her imperfections. The end result of this maturity is her most well-crafted album yet. It’s not that the events she’s endured are the reason her music is great, but rather her ability to draw from these occurrences and channel her inner struggles by way of artistic expression that is both admirable and impressive. In also considering the updates she’s made to her production and overall sound, we’re likely just in the beginning of her reign as the undisputed pop princess.