Track by track review: Ariana Grande- ‘thank u, next’
The one we’ve all been waiting for. Ariana dropped the slick and versatile ‘Sweetener’ in August of last year but it wasn’t her Pharrell-produced fourth studio album that kept her in the spotlight around the world but rather her tumultuous personal life. Grande has been at the centre of entertainment media after a high profile engagement to SNL comedian Pete Davidson ended after the death of her ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller. It seemed grossly tragic that she was experiencing more heartbreak after the trauma of the Manchester bombings in 2017 but it created a car-crash effect in the media, with no one seeming able to look away. Speculation about Grande’s personal life filled entertainment outlets around the world until she decided that she’d had enough.
On November 3, she announced that she was releasing a new single from her fifth studio album and gave us ‘thank u, next’. A reflective, gracious break-up banger that name-dropped four of her ex-boyfriends in the first minute was the last thing anyone expected from Grande but her choice was as tactical as it was personal. Now, it was time for her to control the narrative around her personal life by expressing her gratitude for her recent ex-fiancé rather than indulge in the all-too-popular diss culture. ‘thank u, next’ marked a victory in pop’s embattled status as top musical dog, with Ariana not only ushering in a new strain of positivity but also enjoying her first number one single on the Billboard 100. She quickly announced her upcoming album of the same name, a record she describes as being written with her “best friends” aka longtime members of her team including vocalist and songwriters Victoria Monet and Tayla Parx, super-producer Max Martin, producer Tommy Brown and well-known pop producer team Social House. Fast forward to three months and two singles later and the expectations for ‘thank u, next’ could not have been higher but somehow, Grande managed to surprise us all.
imagine: ‘thank u, next’ opens with a dainty bop released in December, featuring some ethereal whistle tones. It’s an appropriate track to set the tone, sonically upbeat with a melancholic reflection as Grande fantasises about what could have been. A thoughtful opening that doesn’t give too much away about what to expect from the upcoming tracks.
needy: ‘imagine’ is followed by ‘needy’, a subdued ballad about failed resistance against niggling insecurities as Grande croons;
“I can be needy/tell me how good it feels to be needed”
The track has a beautiful chorus that’s slightly hampered by a metronome-like synth in the foreground. ‘needy’ is subdued but still maintains the attention of the listener with it’s heart-warming vocals and strings and most of all, Grande’s honesty about her flaws.
NASA: The mood starts to pick up with ‘NASA’, a track that can only be described as a classic bop. We are talking infectious, intergalactic pop grooves as Ariana give us the first personal parallel on the record. The jump from the self-admitted selfishness of ‘needy’ to the request for space on ‘NASA’ not only reveals how much of her own life she is pouring into the record but how varied the emotional palette of ‘thank u, next’ is.
bloodline: Introduced by a clip from her grandmother, Grande builds on the strong traditional pop sound of ‘NASA’ by surprising us with a killer brass intro on the danceable ‘bloodline’, which sees Grande discuss leaving the pursuit for true love well and truly alone. Simultaneously reminiscent of an early 2000’s hip hop instrumental whilst maintaining a modern beat, ‘bloodline’ is already running circles around some of the less successful danceable tracks on ‘Sweetener’.
fake smile: The instantly recognisable Wendy Rene sample (as featured in tracks previously by Metro Boomin and Wu-Tang Clan) sets us up for Ariana’s take-down of her false positivity. Weaved in with some funky muted bass, she states candidly her understandable disdain for putting on a show (“fuck a fake smile”) among flawless production from Happy Perez and Andrew ‘Pop’ Wansel.
bad idea: Giving us a fast-paced beat with an 80’s rock-ballad intro, ‘bad idea’ stands as a darker, energetic pop track until the surprisingly pretty instrumental break-down flips the record on it’s head. Melting together a cinematic string section and some distorted backing vocals, Ariana soars as ‘thank u, next’ continues to build a catalogue of strong, sonically consistent tracks.
make up: The sexy double-entendre track, ‘make up’, is the first track to be reminiscent of the ‘Sweetener’ sound with it’s glitchy beat, rap-influenced bridge and playfully problematic lyrics.
“I like to fuck with you just to make up with you/Cause the way you be screaming my name/Make me wanna make love to you”
ghostin: The light and playful mood from ‘make up’ quickly evaporates. ‘Ghostin’ feels like a dream, with Ariana’s intimate vocals blending with backing vocals reminiscent of her longtime inspiration Imogen Heap, among a slow, melodic string section. A respectful, quiet and emotional tribute adds another element of sadness to the record as Grande samples her late ex-boyfriend Mac Miller’s track ‘2009’ in the instrumental and makes ‘ghostin’ a touching, cinematic insight to Grande’s life.
“Though I wish he were here instead/ Don’t want that living in your head/He just comes to visit me/ When I’m dreaming every now and then”
‘ghostin’ is not only shockingly honest about the breakdown of her relationship with Pete Davidson over the death of Miller, but it also beautifully displays the the balance that ‘thank u, next’ achieves between the braggadocious pop star and vulnerable young woman, still recovering from personal trauma.
in my head: Introduced by a voicemail from close friend Doug Middlebrook, adding to the plethora of snippets from her personal life already found in this record, ‘in my head’ utilises a laid-back trap beat whilst Grande addresses her failure to see people for who they truly are. Ariana’s vocals are truly ethereal on this track with the chorus seeing her dreamily reach new heights before dropping back into her sensual lower range, as she sings not only about her partner’s reluctance to face his problems but her own personal mistakes.
7 rings: ‘7 rings’ sees Ariana try her hand at rapping on a track all about bonds and excess. The controversy surrounding the ‘borrowed’ elements of the track dampens what is an inventive and contagious track, borrowing from everything from The Sound of Music to Biggie Smalls. Overall, it fits well among the rest of the record but it satisfies as being the only track on the album with this particular sound.
thank u, next: The album’s namesake and the catalyst for Grande’s recent takeover of popular culture. At this point, after hearing this catalogue of excellent pop tracks, you might have forgotten how good ‘thank, u next’ is and it quickly reminds us of the positivity Grande is keeping in her life after some of the darker themes heard earlier.
break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored: Though ‘thank u, next’ seems like a fitting ending, the album actually ends with “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”, a track laid down by Ariana to lift the energy, injecting a sense of sensuality, playfulness and questionable behaviour. With it’s sickening beat which samples NYSNC’s “It Makes Me Ill”, ‘buwygib’ gives us a wonderfully bitchy, no-fucks given track.
On repeat for days after it’s release, ‘thank u next’ is a wonderfully multifaceted pop album. Firstly, it’s not without it’s flaws; the order of the tracks results in a lack of narrative, though it’s such a personal and diaristic record. However, the slightly fractured structure of the record is practically relevant in the face of such a sonically consistent project. Consistency is where ‘Sweetener’ let us down and ‘thank u, next’, though it may explore less varied concepts within it’s production and composition, brings us thoughtful and exciting record. The myriad of musical influences are threaded together beautifully, like on tracks like ‘bloodline’ and ‘bad idea’ but ultimately, bow down to Grande’s own unmistakable aesthetic. The production on ‘thank u, next’ is second to none compared to the rest of Ariana’s discography and you only need to glimpse tracks like ‘ghostin’ and ‘fake smile’ to see that the emotive atmosphere is the most potent it has ever been.
Another interesting element of ‘thank u, next’ is the relief upon hearing that the foray into a sound more influence by trap and hip hop was limited to tracks like ‘buwygib’ and ‘7 rings’. After the controversy surrounding the latter and the rejuvenated discussion about whether or not Grande’s style appropriates black culture, the possibility of Ariana creating a generic pop/trap album that ripped off the sound of other predominantly POC artists was there. However, ‘thank u, next’ remains sonically appreciative of trap and hip hop influences whilst still maintaining a uniquely modern pop feel, mostly appreciating these other styles of music rather than appropriating. The same cannot be said for some other aspects of her work that have notably appropriated some elements of Japanese culture, including the now infamous ‘bbq grill finger’ tattoo. Hopefully, her past mistakes made with ‘7 rings’ are an anomaly in Grande’s career and her album, on the whole, does not reflect a desire to sonically appropriate a culture not her own.
Reflecting on this project, it seems that ‘thank u next’ is the dark twin of ‘Sweetener’, unmistakably linked but wholly different in tone. Whilst ‘Sweetener’ explores a more familiar, palatable range of emotions including the intoxicating quality of first love and the high of being young and successful, ‘thank u next’ delves into a more alienating space. Grande talks candidly about selfishness, of both her and her partner, cheating, leading people on and toying with people’s emotions and there has already been some criticism of this honesty, with some outlets labelling her as coming across as “decidedly unsympathetic” for such candid admissions. But what some deem as insensitive is the reason for the brilliance of ‘thank u, next’.
We are so used to seeing a one-dimensional presentation of women in pop that the honesty surrounding Grande’s portrayal of her flaws seems jarring due to the genre’s reluctance to present female artists as complex and capable. Grande has said ‘thank u, next’ to convention and created a record that documents her emotions and behaviour, good, bad and ugly. She’s not pretending to be the perfect girl next door nor is she trying to embody the stoic, fierce woman without fear or trepidation but rather a sometimes needy, sometimes unbothered but always determined woman. A female figure whose flawed behaviour exists beyond sexuality and who refuses to lie about the trauma in her personal life. This type of complexity is relatively lacking in modern pop music and explains the resonance that the ‘thank u, next’ era has had in popular culture.
Grande explored her comfort zone on her fourth record and now has excelled in it on her fifth. On ‘Sweetener’ we saw a modern sonic vibe that brought together elements of pop, trap and R’n’B but failed to create a wholly consistent sound but, despite not working with huge names such as Pharrell this time, it seems that ‘thank u, next’ is sonically even more consistent than ‘Sweetener’. ‘thank u next’ is truly the pop album of the future, complex, inspired, honest and relatable in a genre that is increasingly abstracted from everyday life. Ariana Grande has truly set the bar for not only herself but the entirety of pop music, a level which other artists may find it hard to reach.