It goes without saying that four-octave vocalist Ariana Grande is one of the most massive figures in music right now. Less than 6 months after her 2018 drop Sweetener, and after its lead single shattered records for most streams in the U.S. and the U.K. and most views on YouTube in 24 hours, she dropped thank u, next. Less than 48 hours later, it’s had the most day-one success of any pop album on Apple Music, and the most day-one success of any female artist on Apple Music ever. Oh, and it was made in two weeks.
But anyone who follows Grande knows her story isn't simply a happy story. At 25 years old, being one of the biggest global pop stars in the past year also resulted in more public trauma and heartbreak in the span of a couple years than most can even comprehend processing quietly and privately over the course of a lifetime. Between a bombing at her Manchester concert, the death-by-overdose of her ex Mac Miller, and a very public engagement and breakup — and all the backlash, blame and fucked up, misplaced criticism the public has thrown at her in the wake of each one — no one would blame her for breaking. Instead, she made an album.
“I made it with my best friends over the course of a really small period of time, and it kind of saved my life,” she told Zach Sang in their recent YouTube interview about the album.
And while Pharrell-produced Sweetener was a beautiful, rose-colored, cotton-candy, lovestruck pop ode to love in its purest form, in November, Grande tweeted, referencing that album’s lead single “No Tears Left To Cry,” “remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA bitch u thought.” thank u, next is basically that tweet in album form. While largely the product of a breakup, as “thank u, next” so heavily suggests, it’s less of A Breakup Album, and more of A Processing Album. Because in 2019, we haven’t given up making mistakes and questionable decisions, but we’re done with blind rage and onto constantly climbing toward emotional growth.
While Ariana returned to the production team — including Max Martin, Ilya Salmanzadeh and TB Hits — that brought us the more unassuming pop/R&B blend on 2016’s Dangerous Woman, they didn’t abandon the glimmers of hip-hop influence that Pharrell brought on Sweetener. In fact, with its apparent trap influence, Grande’s strayed further from pop traditions than any of her previous work, while still very much remaining in the pop realm. It kicks off with “imagine,” a whistle tone-laiden, sultry sonic (and literal) daydream of a track that outlines an unattainable world of romance that consists only of staying up all night, sleeping in and waking up to champagne and bubble baths together — the perfect track to transition from the honeymoon perfection of Sweetener to the dissipation of that elusive ideal into a moodier reality. She immediately shatters her daydream with “needy,” a confession and acceptance of insecurity (and an embrace of an adjective typically assigned to women) set over a minimal beat and a lush, pulsating chorus of background vocals. She continues to weave narratives of pain and loss (“ghostin”), blunt or mischievous intentions or hook-ups (“bloodline,” “bad idea,” “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”), coping mechanisms (“7 rings”), reflection (“in my head”) and a vast array of the other nuanced ups and downs that come alongside the healing process.
All and all, it’s a masterful pop album, made by a a vocal phenomenon and the best pop producers and songwriters in the game. But it would be irresponsible not to talk about the rightful criticism the album and Grande as a public figure have recently received surrounding blatant cases of cultural appropriation. Grande, a white woman, isn’t by any means the first white artist to use the sounds and aesthetics of a culture that isn’t hers, specifically black culture, with very little intentional regard for the people from which she’s taking, in her work. But as Craig Jenkins writes in Vulture — a piece that is whole-heartedly worth a read — about the album, Grande’s excessive tanning and the “7 rings” controversy, it’s a natural function for the public and critics to hold white artists accountable: “We should check Ariana when she’s wrong, because she seems like she listens. It’s okay to push back, to be annoyed. It’s natural, even.” Although cancel culture would have us all believing the opposite, let’s give credit where it’s due, and especially criticism where it’s due, and continue the cultural conversation around an album that has, and will continue to, flood masses of ears across the globe in 2019.