Ariana Grande is arguably one of the biggest pop stars in the world. She’s practically breaking records left and right, from becoming just the fifth artist to have multiple songs debut on top of the Billboard Hot 100 with “7 rings” to her music video for “thank u, next” breaking YouTube’s 24-hour views record for a music video and winning the Best Pop Vocal Album Grammy for “Sweetener” (2018) this past Sunday. Grande, now ten years and five albums into her career, is in her prime. It’s in this prime that Grande has released “thank u, next” (2019), her best album to date.
“Thank U, Next” comes after the sour sound of her fourth album “Sweetener” — it’s impossible not to compare the two, considering “Thank U, Next” debuted just six months after “Sweetener.” Where “Sweetener” is strange and weird, “Thank U, Next” has a more mature quality to it. With 12 tracks, just over 41 minutes in runtime, “Thank U, Next” moves quickly and through a variety of sounds. Its lyrics and themes are consistent, allowing Grande to explore and create something fresh.
If “Sweetener” was an album about love, healing and light, “Thank U, Next” is its second act, following themes of breakups and independence and Grande exploring being single after a whirlwind of exes. The album’s R&B sound is catchy, the lyrics are better and the songs are far more cohesive than any of Grande’s previous works. True, it’s hard to categorize “Thank U, Next” as a pop album — it leans heavily on R&B, hip hop, and some trap — but it’s the most mature Grande has ever sounded. Maybe she isn’t meant to make conventional pop music.
The album’s opener, “imagine,” is a vocal highlight for Grande, with the song’s conclusive whistle notes setting off a good tone for what’s to come. There are plenty of bops such as “NASA,” “bloodline” and “bad idea,” which provide the more traditional pop moments of the album. On these, Grande shines. The lyrics are well-developed, but not too complex, and the sounds are practically earworms — “bloodline” in particular features extremely infectious trumpets throughout its chorus. “thank u, next” is indubitably catchy, “fake smile” is a nice slow simmer and “in my head” blends nicely. “ghostin’” is one of Grande’s best songs ever, a deeply emotional piece that communicates a new perspective of all of the drama Grande has faced this past year.
“Thank U, Next” is by far a sonic improvement from its predecessor, but that doesn’t mean it’s a flawless album. While “needy” is probably one of the best written songs on the album, its spacey beat sounds like a rip-off from “sweetener.” “make up” might be the only absolute misfire, sounding like an interlude that Grande really didn’t need. “7 rings” is a great play on the classic “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” (1965), but Grande’s ‘rap’ verse near the end of the song is neither good nor necessary. “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” is a definite highlight and a nice ending to the album. Overall, it’s a great listen, and a smashing success for Grande — the album broke the record for the most first-day streams of a pop album and the most first-day streams of a female artist on Apple Music.
The album does not come without its controversy — there are accusations of cultural appropriation, such as in her music video for “7 rings” and her especially dark tan, as well as queerbaiting in the music video for “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” All of this makes listening to “Thank U, Next” a cautionary tale: listeners must understand the context in which this album has been released and consider Grande’s critics.
Despite all of this, Grande’s release is a success. It’s her most cohesive and consistent album to date, and its focus on the unconventional just might be where Grande should stay for a while. “thank u, next” is, after all, a great blend of R&B and pop — Grande’s bread and butter — but it’s also pushing those boundaries ever so slightly, playing with what audiences think about those genres today. Ten years ago — or even five — no pop singer would’ve dared to make a hip hop/trap remix of “My Favorite Things” and rap on it.