Album Review: Ariana Grande – Thank U, Next

Ariana Grande has been through it all. From ‘Problem’ to ‘Break Free’ to ‘Dangerous Woman’ and so on:…

Ariana Grande has been through it all. From ‘Problem’ to ‘Break Free’ to ‘Dangerous Woman’ and so on: In sweet soprano voice she created many hits throughout the 2010s. The image of a perfect pop star career makes it hard to believe the other side of the story: A terrorist attack during her 2017 tour in Manchester to the death of rapper and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and eventually the break up of her fiancé Pete Davidson in late 2018. A tumultuous time for one of the biggest female singers of today. While her fourth album ‘Sweetener’, released in August 2018, was in the mids of the craziness, the tour for the album was postponed until March 2019 to take off some time, and rather decided to open up a new chapter: ‘Thank U, Next’.

The fifth long player is presented as a revelation of her struggles and opens up a personal book of her life and state of mind. With less than 6 months of distance between ‘Sweetener’ and ‘Thank U, Next’, it’s amazing how – in the mids of everything – creativity continues to float. While ‘Sweetener’ catapulted her back in the limelight with singles ‘No Tears Left to Cry’ and ‘God Is A Woman’, the release of final single ‘Breathin’ was already a tease for upcoming music – in the music video, a scene shows song names on a departure sign in a train station: ‘Needy’, ‘Imagine’, and ‘Remember’, with the latter not making the setlist of the album. While the music video for ‘Breathin’ was released on November 7, four days after the premiere of title track ‘Thank U, Next’, it’s clear that both ‘Sweetener’ and ‘Thank U, Next’ are linked together, with both cover arts having an upside down picture of Ariana, both using a tracklist stylized in all lowercase, and a world tour promoting the two albums together. So even after turbulent times she managed to get back at it with more success than ever: The album already made it to the top spot of the Billboard Hot 200 (her fourth album to make it to number 1) while lead single as well as second single ‘7 Rings’ gained the top spot as well. Most striking though is that she managed to hold the top three spots of the Top 10 simultaneously in the week of February 23rd: ‘Thank U, Next‘ was #3 during that week, the third single ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’ made it to number 2, while ‘7 Rings’ topped the charts. This was the first time since The Beatles to hold all three top spots, back in 1964. Not forgetting that she also won her first Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Album for ‘Sweetener’ this year. All these ups and downs only make her new long player even more curious what it has to offer, and what after six months has changed. Let’s dive into her fifth LP.

‘7 Rings’ Official Music Video

The entire album’s lyrical content is lead by lead single and title track ‘Thank U, Next’. In R&B and pop sounds Ariana reinvents herself after a rough 2018. While on ‘Sweetener’ she used an interlude track with the name of her then-fiancé ‘Pete Davidson’ to exclaim how happy she is, the annulment of their engagement and break up – that contradits the song – was therefore a laughing matter for media outlets and people on social media. To shield herself, the title track is presented as a way to wipe off tears and standing strong on both feet. A funny surprise: The ex is not portraited as a villain, what’s usually a classic tale in songs, but rather showing gratefulness for the experience and growth, not only solely focusing on Pete, but tying in other past lovers as well: “Thought I end up with Sean, but it wasn’t a match/wrote some songs about Ricky, now I listen and laugh/even almost got married, and for Pete I’m so thankful/Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm, ‘cause he was an angel.”

Released on November 3rd, 2018, the song hit 100 million streams on Spotify eleven days after. The video, directed by Hannah Lux Davis who directed ‘Breathin’ as well, references 2000s chick flicks like ‘Legally Blonde’, ‘Bring It On’, ‘Mean Girls’, and ’13 Going On 30′. Mean Girls’ actors Jonathan Bennett and Stefanie Drummond make cameo appearances, along with Ariana’s former co-stars from ‘Victorious’: Elizabeth Gillies, Daniella Monet, and Matt Benett. Matt, known for being the nerdy puppeteer in ‘Victorious’, acts out the toothbrushing scene from ‘Bring It On’, while ‘Legally Blonde’ and ‘American Pie’ star Jennifer Coolidge discusses relationships with Ariana in comical fashion: “Well I’ve only gone out with one guy that had a big front tooth. And I liked it ‘cause he never got anything stuck in the front teeth. But have you ever gone out with someone that had no teeth at all?”

Official Music Video for Lead Single ‘Thank U, Next’

The entire album is lyric-wise formed about different stages of relationships, breaking up and letting loose after being single. Maybe her most personal effort yet, as many tracks feel like having a direct connection to especially former lovers Mac Miller and Pete Davidson, not to mention the direct approach in the aforementioned title track. Ariana allows the listener to open up about her feelings the past year, starting off with euphoria in ‘Imagine’ as the album opener. With romantic anecdotes she reveals a tight love: “Kiss me and take off your clothes/Imagine a world like that”. Her soprano vocals are maybe the best part of the song, using her whistle register in the outro – going Mariah Carey-style.

‘Imagine’ Lyric Video

‘Needy’ on the other hand, continues the lyrical content as if she was on a drug, admitting “I can be needy”, explaining the listener an emotional rollercoaster, while a dominant off tune xylophone takes control over the song. ‘Needy’ goes hand in hand with ‘Make Up’ – having both similar sound effects and lyrics, continuing a turbulence of making up and breaking up, but enjoying being in that circle while playful and appealing ‘NASA’ follows the desire for strong love feelings, wanting space and me-time so that a lover can truly be missed afterwards. Hints of female empowerment like 2018s ‘God Is A Woman’ is present here as well, changing up Neil Armstrong’s famous quote with ‘woman’ words instead of ‘man’ in the intro of the song: “That’s one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind.”

The most vulnerable track of ‘Thank U, Next’ is ‘Ghostin’ – maybe the most honest and fragile story she offers the public about her recent breakup with Davidson, and the links with Mac Miller. It’s disclosed, when listening closely to the lyrics, how the sadness around Miller haunts Grande emotionally, and therefore hurting the relationship with an understandable, but also hurt, Davidson: “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again over him. I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again ‘stead of ghostin him.” The revealing nature offers feels similar to ‘Everytime’ by Britney Spears. Kudos for Grande for being so revealing, and therefore making it understandable how she ‘can’t fake another smile’ anymore in ‘Fake Smile’, addressing tabloids and fame, and admitting in ‘In My Head’ that she created an image of her past love, even though the track contradicts ‘Ghostin’ by adding some snarky comments: “Look at you/boy I invented you/Gucci tennis shoes/running from your issues.”

While the album’s lyrical content plays a dominant role in the listening experience, the album also offers different flavors of music genres. The Caribbean influenced ‘Bloodline’ does not only remind of Rihanna-esque vocal structures (in ‘Make Up’ as well) but also tropical dance music reminiscent to Sean Paul. ‘7 Rings’ the official second single of the album, takes over trap music. Ariana teased the song already in her ‘Thank U, Next’ video, and gives a totally different vibe than the lead single. Bratty and provocative, using rap techniques to exclaim how she can buy whatever she wants, then staying bratty in ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’. The album’s final track and third single was chosen instead of a song called ‘Remember’ which was too personal for her to share with the world. As silly and unfriendly the message goes, the urban pop track works with its catchy hook, but lyric-wise loses the strength offered in single ‘Thank U, Next’, and missing compassion like in ‘Ghostin’. Ariana labeled the song a ‘fun one’, but rather gives a desperate appeal. Understandable that she feels the needs to push buttons, but lyric-wise was rather an unnecessary add-on for the album.

Music Video for ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’

The 12 tracks from ‘Thank U, Next’ is presented as a whole body of work, full of ups and downs, being either strong or weak, unconcerned than concerned, confident yet also insecure. Ariana’s heavy past year plays a key role: A rollercoaster of feelings. The highest highs to the downest downs, then finding a new path in between. A noticeable fact is that her fifth album, this time around, does not have any features. Maybe on purpose to not distract her own personal story. Pharrell Williams, who played a dominant production role in last year’s ‘Sweetener’, is not present, but then again, maybe his funk would not match the more gloomy approach of the album. On the other hand, producers and songwriters Max Martin, Ilya, and Tommy Brown are invited back from the ‘Sweetener’ sessions to join the creation of ‘Thank U, Next.’ Some of her close friends, like singer and songwriter Victoria Monét, are invited back as well. What’s doubtable of the project is, that even though it’s personal and revealing, the six months distance from her last record raises eyebrows how much of a creative input was indeed possible, in between making time for promotion, filming big-budget music videos, and preparing for a tour. A fast pace release but, as Grande was talking about the process on the Zach Sang Show, sounding like an intense session.

Ariana’s new sound feels edgier in comparison to the more uplifting ‘Sweetener’, but still gives a likeable listening experience. And even when some tracks do not stand out enough, they therefore help other tracks to shine. Basically, an album to enjoy while getting it all out of the system too.

Highlight Tracks:
Thank U, Next

Full Track List (stylized in all lowercase):
1. imagine
2. needy
4. bloodline
5. fake smile
6. bad idea
7. make up
8. ghostin
9. in my head
10. 7 rings
11. thank u, next
12. break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored

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