Ariana Grande’s rise from teeny-bopper Nickelodeon star to pop icon has felt fast and slow at the same time. Initially, her music career was aimed to market towards the tween audience that watched her on TV, but she rejected this after releasing only one single. Instead, we got her excellent 2013 debut, the Babyface-produced Yours Truly, which effortlessly blends the styles of the R&B/pop legends of the 80’s and 90’s with production updates and tweaks that kept it fresh but not trendy. The beats and R&B aesthetic meshed well with rappers, allowing her singles to cross over from pop to urban charts. The records that followed saw greater success, as producers used her natural talent and charisma (not to mention that voice) to mold the Ariana brand into a variety of different styles, ranging from EDM to pop-ballads to reggae.
Although this brought on great success in the charts, there was no clear picture of who Ariana actually was through her music. In interviews she would clap the label “honest” on all of her songs, but there was always a personal aspect that seemed to be lacking in her music. Although she had writing credits on many tracks, it was unclear whether or not she was an artist or a puppet, another pretty face and big voice that was in the right moment or the right time.
This all changed with 2018’s Sweetener, released last August. The album was a huge step forward from her previous work, lyrically and sonically. Many of the songs on the first half of the album were structurally progressive, as Pharrell helped her tap deeper into her hip-hop influences and broke her out of the usual pop tropes. Lyrically, the album delves into more personal territory; many of the songs openly discuss her engagement to comedian/actor Pete Davidson, and also healing from the bombing that famously took place at her concert in Manchester. It seemed that she had finally found her voice as an artist; her music sounded more her’s than her producer’s.
Then just when things were going well, her ex-boyfriend, Pittsburgh’s own Mac Miller, died suddenly from a drug overdose. Her relationship with Davidson fell apart in the wake of this tragedy, and her relationships and life were so analyzed by the media that people started to get sick of her, when in the previous months she had been untouchable. It is with this context that she released thank u, next a mere six months after her last record.
The quick turn-around does not disappoint. The songs sound raw and blunt. Whereas listening to Sweetener felt like sitting on a cloud, thank u, next feels firmly grounded in reality. Opening track “imagine” is a classic Ariana ballad that paints a picture of a simple vision of love, the subtext of course being that she knows this vision is impossible. The sadness in her voice is palpable. Although lyrically it is similar to past releases, she sings it differently than she would have if the song had been released six years ago.
The second track, “needy,” whips her back into reality. Over a melancholy chord progression she sings, “And I’ma scream and shout for what I love / passionate but I don’t give no fucks / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up / I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart / how you think it even got this far, this far?” It’s easily the most vulnerable and authentic she’s ever been on a track. These lyrics feel real and the simplicity of the instrumentation emphasizes the raw place that these songs came from.
Ariana does not stay on the sad-girl train the whole album though. Immediately following “needy” is the bouncy “NASA,” which might be her catchiest song ever. It’s an ode to being alone, to wanting space rather than being forced into it. The hook is so addictive that I’ve actively listened to it ten-plus times in a row; it’s the perfect example of what a pop song should be.
If the entire album was as good as the first three tracks, we would probably have a modern classic on our hands, but unfortunately that’s not the case. She dips into the faux-Latin trend on “bloodline” which lacks the authenticity of the previous songs, and seems clearly geared for air play and streams. “bad idea” takes a darker turn, with heavy bass blasts and an ominous guitar hook. This track features one of the more experimental productions choices, with a brief instrumental orchestra break just when you think the track is ending. It sounds cinematic and dark, and as it swells, an altered beat kicks on with Ariana’s vocals pitched several octaves down, making it sound almost like a Future track for a few seconds.
The record has quite a bit of variety stylistically, but sonically all the songs fit in the same world. It rarely slows down except on the airy ballad “ghostin” which speaks vulnerably about her own faults in her high-profile relationships. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again,” she sings over whooshing synths and sparse strings. It reinforces that this is a truly personal record, even more so than Sweetener. Whereas Sweetener felt like a calculated reaction and intentionally big statement, thank u, next has a flash-in-a-pan quality that brings the messages home much more strongly; it showcases Ariana as a songwriter and as a somewhat hardened celebrity. She sings (and at points, actually raps) with more conviction, more force, more confidence.
thank u, next definitively places Ariana in the cannon as an era-defining pop star in the vein of Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey. Her record is not perfect, but it doesn’t have to be. It is not this record alone that accomplishes this, but the thrill of her artistic progression over the last six or so years. For the first time, she has truly shown us her flaws, and the result is her biggest statement as an artist yet.
Rating: 8.0 (Best New Music)
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Label: Republic Records
Release Date: Feb. 8, 2019