Ariana Delivers a Dark Companion to ‘Sweetener’ with ‘thank u, next’

Source: Alfredo Flores / Republic Records

When you think of a list of artists who could drop two albums in six months, the list mainly includes rappers. Future, Drake, NBA Youngboy, and… Ariana Grande? On her fifth full-length studio album, Grande reinvents the pop wheel by releasing the antithesis to her Grammy-nominated #1 summer album, Sweetener (review here). Following the culture-shifting “thank u, next” (read here); a gorgeous promotional single in “imagine” (review here); and a controversial retail therapy anthem with “7 rings” (read more), Grande has delivered the most cohesive album of her career so far.

Over warbling bass, unpredictable melodic structures, and intricate vocal arrangements, thank u, next, is a break-up album that revels in brokenness, reflection, and newfound self-love and independence.

The twelve track record is Grande’s first completely solo endeavor. With production mainly handled by Tommy Brown (with help from Max Martin & Co. and Pop Wansel), the consistency of this album’s sound is one to marvel at. “imagine” introduces the album, but once that song morphs into the atmospheric “needy,” it is clear that the Ariana of thank u, next is a new woman. Finger snaps punctuated the confessional and vulnerable lyrics of “needy”; this attention to lyricism resonates throughout the album, especially on songs such as “ghostin” and “fake smile.” On the former, Grande flexes the dexterity of her vocal prowess on a stunning ballad about the memory of a love that is permanently lost. It is a stunning tribute to the late Mac Miller in both composition and sincerity, On the latter, Grande flips a sample of Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” for a commentary on the gap between her public and private personas as her fame has risen to new heights.

Samples play an important role on thank u, next, perhaps more pertinent on this album than any of Grande’s previous records. The “My Favorite Things” sample in “7 rings” still sounds fresh and it is a welcome counterbalance to the heavy “fake smile.” Grande also interpolates a part of Neil Armstrong’s iconic “One Small Step” speech on “NASA,” and *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill” on “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” The funky arrangement and vocal delivery on “NASA” are reminiscent of Pharrell’s work on Sweetener, and “break up” is a ridiculously fun and sultry banger just waiting to top the charts.

Elsewhere on the record, to balance out the darker tracks, Grande employs elements of reggae and 2000s R&B to round out her uptempo tracks. From instant fan favorite “bloodline” to the anthemic “in my head,” Grande delivers a track for everyone. Despite the versatility on thank u, next, the record feels completely unique to Grande. This is a body of work that only she could have created. thank u, next is for the phase after the honeymoon, when the cracks start to show in the love that you over-embellished in your thoughts and dreams. She doubles down on the subdued vocal stylings of Sweetener to focus on vocal arrangements, lyricism, and performance. In the past, I have criticized Grande for sounding too sterile and detached on her “emotional” tracks. On this new album, every chord pulsates with each emotion Grande has felt over her tumultuous past six months.

The only things that hold thank u, next back from its full potential are how abruptly some of the songs end and the sequencing of the album tracklist (the title track and “break up” should have swapped places). Nevertheless, Grande has delivered yet another formidable addition to her already impressive discography.

Key Tracks: “needy”; “NASA”; “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”; “fake smile”


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