“I got a bad idea,” Ariana Grande cautions halfway through her excellent fifth LP, thank u, next. “How ‘bout we take a little bit of time away?” It’s exactly the opposite of what the 25-year-old has done with the public since releasing her Grammy-nominated fourth outing, sweetener, just six months ago.
Instead, she’s dominated headlines with white hot, whirlwind romances—$16 million-dollar apartments! $93,000 engagement rings! Think pieces on big dick energy!—that end in perhaps not-at-all-that-surprising heartache. Meanwhile, the young artist has been processing the shock and grief of losing her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, to an accidental drug overdose. And just this week she backed out of the Grammys following a disagreement with the show’s producers. A lesser artist’s music might have been overshadowed by the tabloid frenzy, but Grande has met each event with her most self-assured, fully formed, and downright irresistible music to date. thank u, next’s first two singles, the surprise-released title track and “7 rings,” which warps the familiar melody of The Sound of Music’s classic “My Favorite Things” into a three-minute master class in female bravado, each debuted at No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. “thank u, next” has practically become canon in 2019 colloquialism. The song’s music video became YouTube’s most-viewed music video in 24 hours following its release with 55.4 million streams in a single day and right now, the album is already sitting atop the iTunes Top Albums chart in sales.
For the bulk of the 12-song set, Grande returned to the studio with frequent cohorts Tommy Brown, Victoria Monet, and Savan Kotcecha. But elsewhere, she enlisted new names like Justin Tranter (Selena Gomez, Gwen Stefani) and Nova Wav, the duo of Brittany “Chi” Coney and Denisia “Blu June” Andrews who had a hand in Beyonce and JAY-Z’s Everything is Love LP last year. Grande has a writing credit on every song. The results are, in a word, magnificent, flowing between throbbing R&B, ‘90s-esque hip-hop, and crystalline pop and garnished with orchestral strings, thumping basslines, and ethereal production.
If sweetener found its strength in stoic optimism, yearning for a utopia certainly just around the corner, next revels and wallows in Grande’s very chaotic here and now. “Lately I’ve been on a roller coaster,” she admits on the understated “needy,” “Tryna get ahold of my emotions.” Later, she adds over a handclap beat, “I’m obsessive and I love too hard/Good at overthinking with my heart.” On the playful “make up” she admits that she picks fights just to “bring you to the bed where we can really make it right” while the dancehall-infused “bloodline” sees her rapping about wanting to keep a friends-with-benefits arrangement pressure-free. More than once, but most delightfully on “fake smile,” which samples Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” (1964), she warns her audience of the weight of the baggage that trails her.
And while Grande was engaged to comedian Pete Davidson, it’s the loss of Miller which yields the most emotionally devastating moments on the collection. “ghostin,” a weightless cloud of production handled by Martin and the best song on the set, sees the singer consumed by grief. Wrapped in the arms of someone new, she cries for the memory of another. “I’m putting you through more than one ever should,” she sings, barely above a whisper, promising to leave and spare him more pain. On “imagine,” a promotional single that opens the album, she wraps herself in gilded denials, dreaming of a love that’s now impossible. “Why can’t you imagine a world like that?” she asks. The reality of the answer hits you right in you chest.
At every turn, Grande resists reconciliation. She lays her contradictions bare. Her scars are on display and she refuses to apologize for mixing a little fun into her sorrow.