Six months after Sweetener, Ariana Grande has dropped another album. Usually when artists do this, it’s an attempt to cash in on relevance, an “artistic choice” (please The 1975 and Foals, don’t follow this trend), or reasons baffling to anyone but the artist (has anyone forgiven Green Day for their Satanic trilogy yet?). thank u, next, however, is a different beast. Written and produced largely in one month, preceded by two huge singles, thank u, next is actually a dip into the essence of mixtape culture, releasing music when she has good music to release, like Charli XCX except with major label support.
It’s her best album yet. It’s also her biggest, with the three released singles taking up the top three spots on the Billboard Hot 100, the first time this has happened since the Beatles in 1964 and the first time a solo act or a woman has done this. It also joins Lemonade as the only female album in history to have all of its tracks debut on the Hot 100 simultaneously. Like, what? This is a lot of records to break or set for an artist who just a couple of years ago wasn’t considered to be anywhere near the same level as pop’s most hegemonic stars. There has always been a general feeling of ambivalence towards Grande, with people appreciating the undoubtable bangers and her incredible vocal range but never really latching onto what was an obvious personality void, a vessel for the machinations of big producers. What changed?
This time around, Pharrell has been ousted in favour of Grande’s usual suspects and an array of close friends, but thank u, next surprisingly isn’t a step back into the algorithm-approved bangers of Dangerous Woman or My Everything. This is the album that Dangerous Woman, with all its shallow toe-dipping into a child’s interpretation of “grown”, desperately wanted to be. Slap a sleepy Nicki Minaj verse on ‘bloodline’ and it would be the catchier, more settled sister of ‘Side to Side’; ‘in your head’ is a gloomier ‘Let Me Love You’ which tackles the idea of putting people you love on a pedestal and trying to deconstruct the image of them you created. Some of these songs have echoes of Loud / Talk That Talk-era Rihanna, which is never a bad thing. These songs are full of fun and an unapologetic bad bitch aura, encapsulated in the sweetly blasé ‘make up’, complete with standard Riri “eh eh eh”s in the background.
“Grande has never been more relatable”
The success of thank u, next can be attributed to Grande’s ubiquity in the press and the Beyoncé-perfected art of sharing what everyone wants to know through music, as well as a strong campaign and theming. There’s also the fact that Grande has never been more relatable. She sings of being clingy and on the very next song needing space, she dismisses the idea of needing to find “the One”, opens up about anxiety and feelings of guilt as she thinks of her ex while she’s with her current partner. The ever-present tinge of hip hop, AAVE and trap don’t hurt in a culture in which all of the above are the only elements needed to have a hit. Although she’s always dawn from hip-hop, here Grande edges disturbingly further towards musical blackface. This development is unsurprising given this facade’s guaranteed success, but can someone tell this woman she’s white?
It would be tempting to see last year’s Sweetener as the burst of positivity, full of energy and experimentation, and thank u, next as her dark-sided sister. That view would be reductive and misrepresentative of the full spectrum of catharsis. Sweetener is that strange liminal period in your youth where you think you have to try to be grown and well-rounded, sometimes failing, sometimes wondering why you try. thank u, next is when you realise you don’t have your shit together, and you don’t need to; it’s when you realise you just want to be young and begin to inhabit that role with renewed passion and confidence. This is where thank u, next succeeds; it leans into Grande’s mainstream wheelhouse of huge bangers, icy trap and cutesy R&B, but elevates them with a new verve and an appreciation of what the form can accomplish if done right.
“thank u, next is when you realise you don’t have your shit together, and you don’t need to; it’s when you realise you just want to be young and begin to inhabit that role with renewed passion and confidence”
These albums are also two different, but complicated sides of trauma. Sweetener is the smile you plaster on after a funeral, the self-delusion, the “I’m okay, really!”. thank u, next is drifting into the less discernible shades of grief, a space where memories and feelings come to lift you and drag you in equal measure. In this respect, the backwards synths and wall-of-ambience approach in the heartbreaking “ghostin” succeeds, as does the acknowledgment of the canyon between our external and internal lives in “fake smile”. It’s that state of melancholy but also somehow laughing, because it’s easy to forget how functional you can be when you’re at your lowest, how you can laugh at your own tears while making a mental list of things you need in the supermarket.
The sequencing of the last three songs is strange, cycling from the out-of-place trap of “7 rings” into the ubiquitous yet still gorgeous title track, to the questionable bop “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”. Maybe this is due to “break up…” replacing “Remember”, a track Grande removed for allegedly being too personal, and it’s a strange way to end the album. This doesn’t really matter when thank u, next is the most effective, cohesive and yes, actually personal album she’s released so far. If Grande disappears off the face of the earth for a few years after her Sweetener Tour or quits music altogether to star in Broadway musicals, she’s earned that at least.