Ariana Grande’s 2018 album, Sweetener, should have been named after another popular coffee additive: half-and-half. It was equal parts fantastic (“Breathin” and “R.E.M” remain on loop) and, well, frankly not great (anyone else still startled by the man shouting throughout “The Light Is Coming”?). But less than six months and a couple of heartbreaks later, a more tenacious and independent Grande is back with her most cohesive effort to date.
The Grammy nominee, 25, recorded her R&B-inflected fifth album, Thank U, Next (out now), over a short — albeit tragically eventful — timespan. While she was busy promoting Sweetener late last summer, her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller suffered a drug overdose and died at the young age of 26, and she broke up with her fiancé of four months, Pete Davidson, just weeks later. The back-to-back losses, which came a year after a suicide bomber killed 22 fans at her Manchester, England, concert, understandably left Grande staggering.
“Remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought,” she tweeted in November.
But like the true artist she is — and as the old adage goes — Grande turned tragedy into triumph. She spent time with family and friends, stayed in touch with fans on Twitter and turned to retail therapy, the latter of which inspired one of many standouts on Thank U, Next.
“Been through some bad s–t, I should be a sad bitch / Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” she teases on the flossy “7 Rings” over a spellbinding sample of the Sound of Music classic “My Favorite Things.”
And the samples don’t stop there. On the disc’s closer, the savagely titled bop “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which was a last-minute addition to the tracklist, Grande borrows a verse from ‘NSync’s 2000 album cut “It Makes Me Ill” and brilliantly turns it into her own.
Given the recording period, much of Thank U, Next is deeply personal. On the title track, which became Grande’s first-ever No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, she name-drops former flames Big Sean, Ricky Alvarez, Davidson and Miller, but she does it with class. She assures listeners that she is “so thankful” for Davidson before calling the late Miller “an angel.” From there, the track becomes more of a self-love anthem than a petty kiss-off (“I know they say I move on too fast, but this one gon’ last / ‘Cause her name is Ari, and I’m so good with that”).
Grande’s candor reaches even greater heights on “Ghostin,” a gut-wrenching and futuristically orchestral ballad that seemingly addresses the guilt she felt for mourning Miller while engaged to Davidson. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again / Over him,” she laments at one point, though she does praise the comedian (or whoever it’s about) for being “so understanding” and “so good” after she put him “through more than one ever should.”
Of course, the album has its lighter moments too. On “NASA,” Grande gets punny and begs, “I’mma need space,” while “Bloodline” chronicles her journey to find someone to “have a good time” with — without any strings attached. She tackles her critics head-on with “Fake Smile,” reminding them, “I know it’s the life that I chose / But baby, I’m grateful, I want you to know.” And on “Make Up,” she gives a shout-out to Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty line, because why not?
The cohesion of the record’s 12 songs is a testament to how much the singer has grown since her 2013 debut, Yours Truly, which bounced from finger-snapping doo-wop to thumping EDM synths. For someone who once sang the cringeworthy (and grammatically incorrect) lyric “Now that I’ve become who I really are,” she now has an impeccable ear for what works and what doesn’t. And it helps that she understands the inner workings of the industry.
Leading up to the release of Thank U, Next, Grande shared some insight into her strategy to spontaneously drop new tunes at her leisure.
“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” she told Billboard in December. “I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the pre-order, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this s–t. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to f–king talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do.’”
And those boys better watch out because God is a woman — and her name is Ariana Grande.
3.5 stars (out of 4)
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