Man, can a lot change in six months!
When readying the release of last August’s Sweetener, Ariana Grande was arguably at what many would consider her peak. The album was bathed in the then-glow of her whirlwind romance with SNL comedian Pete Davidson (he even got a song named after him), with the now-Grammy Award winning pop opus destined for chart success off the back-end of its lead single’s monstrous reception; the disco-lite “No Tears Left To Cry” topped the charts in no-less than 10 countries.
But being in love and professing so is so 2018, and the new-year Grande – with a zero f*cks attitude that feels entirely removed from the bubbly bottle blonde that promoted Sweetener – appears to be all about reclaiming herself on Thank U, Next, a 12-song strong set that furthers her bond between R&B and pop with a ferocity that’s far beyond her years.
The self-aware humour present in the titular track – a synth-driven pop kiss-off to her former lovers – is largely relegated to the album’s closing moments alongside the cocksure anthem “7 Rings” and the amusingly-titled “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”, a slick urban bop that cleverly interpolates an obscure album track from *NSYNC‘s 2000 offering No Strings Attached.
What remains on Thank U, Next though is where Grande truly shines, and its through her evident love of self-preservation that affords the listener the chance to truly touch base with the singer’s mind-frame. Whilst you could never accuse her first three LP’s (2013’s Yours Truly, 2014’s My Everything and 2016’s Dangerous Woman) of being void of personality, Grande was very much still playing something of a part, and she was able to get away with it thanks to her Mariah Carey-esque vocal range and a ponytail extension of serious length. Similarly, she knew how to construct a relatable song that would tailor itself to the masses: 99 problems but bae ain’t one? Funk out to the trumpet loop of “Problem”; crushing on someone? Look no further than the crisp dance-floor vibes of “Into You”; had relations so good you couldn’t walk straight? The R-rated reggae tinge of “Side To Side” got you.
But with last year’s Sweetener we finally started seeing an insight into Grande as a person, and now that that person has suffered through heartbreak (in addition to her relationship breakdown with Davidson, her ex, rapper Mac Miller, tragically passed away from an accidental overdose), Thank U, Next is the next step in her evolution as both a person and an artist; the album’s opening track “Imagine” is a lush R&B ballad indirectly referencing Miller that serves as one her most vulnerable moments, as well as continuing her artistic shift towards more urban rhythms.
Between the admission of her own imperfections on the minimalistic R&B of “Needy” (“Sorry that I think i’m not enough / And sorry if I say sorry way too much” she laments) to reclaiming the power in casual sex on the reggae-inspired “Bloodline”, Grande runs the gamut of emotions in a seeming bid to not just produce the type of music that listeners can relate to, but maintain that relationship as an artist too. And given the quick six month turn-around between this and Sweetener, it’s clear the pint-sized superstar is invested in her new musical direction, and if this is the quality of music we receive born from tragedy, one can only imagine what’s in store next should she have a good year; and with a Grammy win under her belt and a headlining Coachella slot on the cards, it seems fair to assume 2019 is very much the year to quote herself: “Thank U, Next” indeed!
FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next is out now through Republic Records