Pop has finally made its comeback
And along with it, a new queen.
Critical acclaim and fame are often thought of as being antagonistic. At least, that’s what pop music seems to prove. Time and time again, some of music’s biggest names put out average, often lack-luster ‘albums’ while small, indie artists in the distant corners of Spotify or Soundcloud have released the highest rated albums of the year.
This only seems to be solidified by the fact that many artists only seem to improve their music as their fame wanes. Lorde’s Pure Heroine arguably represented the peak of her fame. While revolutionary in its own right, the album held no ground against her sophomore release Melodrama, which made frequent appearances in critics’ top albums of the year and scored an AOTY nomination at the Grammys without ever having a top ten single. This is in stark contrast to her previous record, where Royals topped the charts for a whopping nine weeks. This mysterious phenomenon can be seen in many other artists. Lana Del Rey’s Lust For Life is undoubtedly superior to her far more popular major label debut Born To Die. Carly Rae Jepsen’s Kiss is her most popular album to date due to Call Me Maybe, but her far more artistically innovative Emotion now lays in the abyss of one-hit-wonder follow-ups. Even legends like Mariah Carey, whose 2018 release Caution was hailed as her best album in over a decade, failed to generate much fanfare and instead had 25-year-old Christmas jingle as her big hit of the year.
Ariana Grande, for a while, could be clubbed in this category. While not necessarily poor in any respect, her lyricism and artistic direction always seemed to undercut her exceptional vocal performance. It was always either the cute love song, the ‘I’m mature and wanna have sex’ song or the generic ballad. However, upon undergoing a series of events that not many pop artists of our generation have ever had to endure, Ariana Grande seems to have come out with a body of work that will undoubtedly place her in the same upper echelon of universal acclaim and respect as Amy Winehouse, Adele, Beyonce, and Bjork.
thank u, next as an album is unconventional, to say the least. While seen relatively frequently in genres like hip-hop, releasing two major albums within six months of each other was new for pop. At a time when albums, including Grande’s preceding release Sweetener, take years to record, thank u, next was completed in under a month. Yeah, that’s right. The album that is being hailed as the best pop record in over two years was recorded in a shorter amount of time than the cancerous garbage that pop is infamously known for.
We start the album with the promotional single Imagine. Contrary to the far more optimistic lead single, Imagine sees Grande daydreaming about a special someone and how life would be with that person. The song’s production mimics this positive facade with a relatively cheery and orchestral production. However, the song’s lyrics are what paint the real picture. The song, rather than being an innocent love story, is actually a heartbreaking ballad with undertones of regret. The special someone is her late ex-boyfriend Mac Miller.
Mac Miller passed away last year due to a drug overdose. His drug habit was also one of the driving factors behind the fracture of his relationship with Grande, which ended earlier that year. When Grande passionately belts, “Imagine a world like that”, she is referring to a relationship that wasn’t plagued by drugs. In a way, the song can be looked at as a thinly veiled confession. One where Grande admits to the pain and guilt she felt. This is likely a raw, unadulterated response to all the people who accused her of being the root cause of Mac’s overdose.
Like in Sweetener, anxiety and Grande’s mental environment is addressed on the album. Her anxiety, especially, is addressed on the next track, Needy. With a far more minimalistic production compared to the lush opening, we see Grande embracing the stereotypical clingy girlfriend brand.
I’m obsessive and I love too hard
Good at overthinking with my heart
How you even think it got this far, this far?
A defining idea of thank u, next is finding meaning in simplicity. Grande doesn’t bother about hiding behind eloquent lyricism and deep metaphors. Needy, while seeming like a parody of a stereotype, is actually a look into Grande’s longing for companionship. Her ex had unexpectedly passed away. This, in turn, led to the demise of her relationship with her fiancé Pete Davidson. Grande has, more often than not, had significant people in her life ripped out by unforeseeable circumstances. Hence, we are left with a Grande who craves for stability. A someone who she can rely on to be there for her in a world that is as volatile and cruel as hers. This is exemplified in the string-based closure of the song. The poignant violin showcases a kind of innocence. All she’s looking for is someone to call special.
thank u, next epitomizes the dichotomy in Grande’s moral principles. When Sweetener came out, Grande was only just beginning to recover from the succession of tragedies in her life. It was logical to pour that out into an album. Now, however, we are at a crossroads. She is close to moving on from her emotions, but there’s still that tiny bit holding her back. Can she really go back to who she was before Manchester?
If you see the tracklist, you will notice that songs with layers of hidden meaning and deep references are sprinkled in between songs that are more akin to her former discography. Fun, dance, and superficial tracks like NASA, Bloodline, and Bad Idea are followed up by tracks like Fake Smile, which sees Ariana tackling the struggles of fame and the need to maintain a perfect, albeit fake, image, and Ghostin, which sees her talk about the aftermath of Mac Miller’s death and how it impacted her relationship with Pete. The question then remains, is this really a happy album?
Ghostin requires a little more attention here because of the way in which it addresses the listener or lack thereof. The song is sung in a way that makes it seem as if she is singing it to herself, and the listener is a fly on the wall. She’s thinking to herself. This undoubtedly makes it the most introspective song off the album.
It’s evident that Mac Miller’s passing had a role to play in her separation from Pete Davidson. The song chronicles the aftermath of his death and her mourning. In a sort of retroactive acknowledgment, Grande sings about the pain she caused Pete. From the sound of her crying at night to the stress she put on him due to her circumstances. She wishes that she could get over him. She doesn’t want to cause him pain, but there’s nothing she can do about it. Mac’s death had likely revived her feelings for Mac, as is insinuated here,
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 (And then)
Ghostin, in a way, is Grande admitting that these feeling for Mac had already set the relationship’s trajectory towards doom. It is an apology. While she is mourning the loss of a close person in her life, she is sadder about the fact that Pete is having to go through it as well. As someone who wasn’t very close to Mac Miller, Pete Davidson was put in a tight position where his fiancé grieved over the loss of a former lover. However, Pete does his best to understand and empathize with Ariana. He tried. And even though it wasn’t enough. Even though Grande was in a place that Pete couldn’t have helped her out of, she is grateful for his attitude and empathy.
Unequivocally, the 2 most talked about tracks of the album are thank u, next and 7 Rings. These tracks, along with Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored, are the final three songs of the album. This is definitely the most energetic and upbeat part of the album.
thank u, next, the song, was the lead single off the album. Lyrically, the song is a callback to all her failed relationships, including name-checking her exes, and how she’d moved on. However, these past reflections are far more positive than a typical ex-song. She’s thankful to Pete Davidson for his contribution to her. She wishes she could say thank you to Mac Miller. It’s definitely an interesting artistic turn for Grande and showcases a certain maturity that is uncanny for an artist as mainstream as her.
7 Rings is a very interesting song in Grande’s discography. While she has bragged about her fame on tracks like successful, 7 Rings is a step up and shows Grande proudly embracing her wealth and channels her inner rap alter ego. Flipping the iconic metaphor and singing,
Whoever said money can’t solve your problems
Must not have had enough money to solve ‘em
They say, “Which one?” I say, “Nah, I want all of ‘em”
Happiness is the same price as red-bottoms
the Sound Of Music sample has already become a fan favorite. While the lyricism is definitely the weakest in the album, 7 Rings, at the end of the day, is a celebration of friendship and companionship.
Finally, we have the song with the most interesting title. break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored, is, in Grande’s words, is the fun song of the album. The song showcases Grande at her most casual and is interested in a man who is already in a relationship with someone else. This song was more for the fans because it wasn’t supposed to be there.
The original tracklist had the song reMeMber, which was strongly speculated to be about Mac Miller and a follow up to ghostin. However, Grande pulled the song, saying that it was a little too personal for her.
When I was listening to this album, I couldn’t help but think about how far she had come. For years she tried to change her brand and make herself look mature, but having undergone these events, she truly evolved into someone different. It wasn’t a PR move. She could’ve easily retreated from the spotlight and come back. Instead, not only did she put out a well-received album in 2018, but she has also come with 2019’s best album.
If the album had to be summarised in a line, if I had to give one statement about what the album revolved around, it would definitely be this.
thank u, next showcases the struggles trying to get over a tragedy. If Sweetener was Ariana looking up from her pit of pain, thank u, next is Ariana having climbed back up and looking down and wondering whether she’s supposed to come out. It’s an introspective look as to whether she’s really ready to move on from her tragedy.
Similar in a way to Britney Spears’ In The Zone, Ariana has finally broken who she used to be. This album is the pinnacle of Ariana’s musical and lyrical ingenuity. The only thing that can be regarded as consistent across her discography is her superior vocal performance, which, for the first time in a while, has been done justice.
Congratulations Ariana. You made it.
This is one small step for woman
One giant leap for woman-kind