Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’ Is A Complicated, Stunning Mess

Just as 'ANTi' was for Rihanna, 'thank u, next' is the long-awaited coalesce of Grande's personality with her sound.

Ariana Grande 'thank u, next' album cover

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Just like with Sweetener, thank u, next‘s album cover flips Ariana Grande upside down — the difference is, as Grande Tweeted, “this time she kinda fucks w it lol.”

Arriving just five months after Grande’s fourth album, thank u, next was forged in a flash and a second round of fires.

She’s had a hell of a past two years, but rather than follow up Dangerous Woman with a ‘serious work’, Grande instead dropped Sweetener, one of the most inspired, weird R&B alt-pop albums of recent history that proves depth doesn’t require darkness.

Then, a few weeks after its release, Grande’s ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, overdosed. It put an understandable strain on Grande’s relationship with Davidson: as she Tweeted shortly after they cancelled their engagement, “remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought”.

The reaction online to the break-up was filled with schadenfreude and ‘told you so-isms’, and Grande soon asked her fans to back off Davidson. ‘Thank u, next’, a break-up anthem brimming with gratitude, came two weeks later — it was not only a mantra to herself, but a way to tell her audience the importance of keeping their memes more honey-than-vinegar.

But where some might’ve found the overt optimism of Sweetener occasionally a little too sugary to swallow, thank u, next is, like its title track, a confluence of feelings — resentment and gratitude, reflection and forward thinking.

While memes online paint thank u, next as Sweetener‘s evil twin, it’s only true in that Grande is increasingly candid on the album. As she continues to mature as both a person and a pop-star, Grande ventures into both the light and the dark on thank u, next.

Sometimes — as you’d know if you’ve been following her Japanese-language tattoo debacle — that journey has miss-fires, but hey, at least (most of) the songs are a smash.

So Fucking Grateful

It’s naive to suggest that Grande wasn’t herself or authentic before Sweetener, or that her earlier, EDM-indebted hits aren’t imbued with personality and charm. ‘Into You’ remains, as Billboard notes in its ranking of all of her songs, her best: sensual and ecstatic, filled with confidence. But the ‘vulnerability’ that dominates Sweetener and thank u, next was rarely present on her first three albums.

Even in earlier ballads like ‘Thinking Bout You’ and ‘Just A Little Bit Of Your Heart’, her four-octave range bellied too much confidence and distance: it was clear it was a performance, which doesn’t mean it couldn’t be moving. But her music now, unable to be divorced from its context, drips with emotion.

While ‘thank u, next’ name-drops exes, the album’s other songs don’t announce their subjects directly. Nor do they need to: as a thesis point, thank u, next accepts that pain and trauma can’t be compartmentalised, linked to one person or point in time. Instead, the album’s a maelstrom of frustration, love, regret, loss and optimism — one which invites the listener in.

thank u, next is, like its title track, a confluence of feelings — resentment and gratitude, reflection and forward thinking.

Take ‘Ghostin’, a ballad that details the difficulty of a past lover haunting a new relationship. With knowledge of Miller’s passing, the song takes on a specific meaning (“I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again/Over him“), but like the best pop songs, it works without the context. The pain is specific; the expression, like the song’s spooling synths, stretches towards the universal.

Another standout is album opener ‘imagine’, a ballad about a relationship redone without paparazzi clicks and past mistakes. In its bridge, Grande reaches whistle tone for the first time on record — the song balances regret with possibly, as she strives to push past previous limits.

As a whole, thank u, next is a push forward. Even though Grande reunites with her pre-Sweetener producers Max Martin, Tommy Brown and Ilya Salmanzadeh, the album is still flecked with R&B ticks and vocal quirks of ‘yuhs’ — it’s a synthesis of the two sounds, huge tracks which remain uniquely hers.

Grande faces Ariana Grande head-on in ‘Needy’, a counterpoint to Dangerous Woman standout ‘Greedy’. Where the latter demands a lover’s attention with few flirtatious words and an inviting beat, ‘Needy’ examines that flex of confidence for what it really is — a front. On ‘Needy’, Grande apologises for being difficult. She lists her flaws over a fairytale-like trill before the chorus, where she accepts that while dependency might not be a Happily Ever After, but there’s still happiness to be found on the way to something stronger. “Tell me how good it feels to be needed“, she sings.

It feels good to have fun, too, and as a whole, thank u, next lands pretty lightly. There’s ‘bad idea’ and the bombastic-as-its-title ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m next’, for starters, while even ‘darker’ songs like ‘fake smile’ and the space-pun filled ‘NASA’ turn Grande’s admittance that she still needs to heal into empowerment bops.

More Tears Left To Cry

It’s telling that there are no guest artists on thank u, next. Grande can stand alone: just as ANTi was for Rihanna, thank u, next is the long-awaited coalescence of Grande’s personality with her sound. The album wouldn’t work coming from someone else.

Which is why the album’s generic second single ‘7 Rings’ fell somewhat flat. For many, the trap song — where Grande raps about her wealth — felt disingenuous at best, thievery and appropriative at worst. Princess Nokia, Soulja Boy both called out Grande for ripping off their songs, while 2 Chainz said that the video’s setting mirrored his Floridian Pink Trap House.

In the aftermath, a long-simmering conversation about Grande’s relationship to blackness as an Italian-American boiled over, as many found ‘7 Rings’ bordering on Dolezaling in both sound, style and Grande’s visuals. Add to that criticism of cultural appropriation related to her recent Japanese hand tattoo, which was supposed to say ‘7 Rings’ but instead read ‘small bbq grill’, and it’s clear that Grande still has things to learn.

Perhaps a reason why ‘7 Rings’ didn’t connect like ‘thank u, next’ did was that it felt too performative, perfectly fine and fun but a little hollow. Partly, that’s because it dips its toes in a culture that isn’t Grande’s to take — though as Vulture notes, ‘7 Rings’, written with her longterm friends Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét, reached its sound much more organically than, say, Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz. 

But it mostly feels like a flex we didn’t need. It’s not her money that we’re envious of, but her strength — and her ability to release two stellar albums within five months.

Grande has herself said that she doesn’t like the idea of pop star “eras”, which works well with the thank u, next ethos. Discarding Sweetener so quickly would sully its meaning, and songs like ‘Pete Davidson’, a one-minute interlude where Grande sings she’s ‘gonna be happy’ forever, would become embarrassing relics of failed relationships. Sure, things didn’t work out, but it felt like it would at the time.

It’s easy to sever yourself off from the past to cauterise the pain, or to cast away a relationship as ‘toxic’. It’s much harder to admit there was growth within the decay.

Sweetener‘s warmth and optimism is flecked through thank u, next. Through an occasional odd percussion, a stray vocal sample, or a ‘yuh’, it shines briefly — then Grande moves on.

Ariana Grande’s thank u, next is available now.

Jared Richards is a staff writer at Junkee, and as of yet, has not had a doughnut-related scandal. Follow him on Twitter.