Album Review: Ariana Grande’s ‘Thank U, Next’

Well, that sure was quick. Less than six months after dropping sweetener, Ariana Grande returns with her fifth album – Thank U, Next. Despite what seems like a rapid turnaround, there has been no shortage of events to inspire a new batch of material. Heartbreak – over the death of ex Mac Miller and a failed engagement to Pete Davidson – and the resulting emotions appear to have inspired a good part of the project. Like any creative, the big-voiced diva harnessed those experiences and worked through them via her art. The end result is one of her most compellingly adult and honest releases yet.

As she moves into a new era, there is no denying the Pop Princess is riding a strong wave of forward momentum. The 25-year-old has been on a hot streak since unveiling “no tears left to cry” last April. Sweetener’s defiantly euphoric lead single hit number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. Meanwhile “God is a woman” went Top 10, and “breathin” peaked just outside at number 12. But she pulled off a professional best when surprise release “thank u, next” premiered at the top spot on the chart. In a quick one-two punch, she pulled it off again (joining Mariah Carey and Britney Spears as the only female artists with multiple #1 debuts) with the trap-infused “7 rings.”

Although both singles have proven to be career-defining hits, that is not to say that they are indicative of the sound of the album. Instead, I’d give that honor to moody buzz track “imagine,” which mastered the blend of hip-hop, R&B and pop stylings that drives Thank U, Next. The song, a personal favorite, also highlights the full range of Ari’s voice. Those whistle notes. Seriously, they’re too good. Thus, it makes sense to open the 12-track project with the dream-like anthem.

The rest of the LP features collaborations with familiar and new faces. Swedish pop legends Max Martin and Ilya Salsalmanzadeh do the heavy lifting on a handful of tracks. Meanwhile, close friends Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx’s bylines are liberally scattered across the credits. Others who join the mix include TBHits, Savan Kotecha, Justin Tranter and more.

After last year, one notable name is missing: Pharrell Williams. The storied producer worked on the more experimental half of sweetener. Some of his output was stronger: “R.E.M.” & “successful” are undeniable bops, and “get well soon” is a tear-jerker. However, there is no excusing the sonic mindfuck of elevator music that was “blazed” or the wasted Missy Elliott cameo on “borderline.” His absence here is notable after only one listen. The end result is an infinitely more evenly paced (and better) album.

That isn’t to say it is a formulaic pop record. Ari’s latest explores some relatively uncharted territory for her (as evidenced by the trap beats on “7 rings”). It is just handled more cohesively. Sure, there are some outliers. But she’s managed to do away with the feeling two distinctly different projects are developing simultaneously. As a result, this may be her most mature and well-realized concept album to date. Now, let’s dive into it.

The first new song on the tracklist is the one that kicked off rumors another LP was on the way – “Needy.” Some fans struggled to relate to the glorious excesses of “7 rings.” AKA, they could not afford endless pairs of Louboutins and 7 diamond rings. But they won’t have the same problem here. Over a sparse production, Ari owns up to a few instantly relatable traits. “I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up. But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up,” she coos. “And I can be needy. Way too damn needy.” But there’s a positive spin. By demanding attention, she is fulfilling a need in her partner. “Tell me how good it feels to be needed.”

Ironically enough, the following song – “NASA” – is all about demanding personal boundaries be erected and respected. The bouncy track features an introduction from RPDR alum Shangela. “This is one small step for woman, one giant leap for woman-kind,” the queen intones before ceding the track to the overwhelmed-by-love Grammy nominee. “I’d rather be alone tonight. You can say ‘I love you’ through the phone tonight,” she encourages a partner. After channeling the female divine on “God is a woman,” she takes the metaphor a step further. “It’s like I’m the universe and you’ll be N-A-S-A.” The end result is a sing-along bop with plenty of replay factor and just as much personality.

Escapism emerges as a unifying theme on the majority of the album. Be it from memories, lovers or expectations, Ari spends a good deal of time finding some form of distraction over perfectly crafted beats. And she does that exceptionally well on danceable highlight “bloodline.” Here, she’s searching for a reprieve from reality within the arms of a casual fling. And she makes their impermanence abundantly clear over fierce beats. “Don’t want you in my bloodline. Just wanna have a good time,” she sings between repetitions of her now-iconic yuh’s. This begs to be released as a single and will undoubtedly be a fan-favorite live.

The ponytail aficionado throws it way back on “fake smile.” Paying tribute to retro stylings, she works a downtempo sample of Wendy Rene’s 1964 hit “After Laughter” into the song. Paired with a breezy production courtesy of Happy Perez and “Pop” Wansel, it makes for an intriguing fusion. In a similar vein to Julia Michaels and Selena Gomez’s “Anxiety,” lyrically she embraces her breakdown instead of fighting it. “I can’t fake another smile. I can’t fake like I’m alright,” she admits. “And I won’t say I’m feeling fine. After what I been through, I can’t lie.” It’s a refreshing take and feels indicative of modern pop divas’ tendencies toward being upfront and raw with their fans.

Her reprise from escapism is a brief, though. We’re racing back into the deep of it over frenzied beats and lush strings on “bad idea.” Tension builds as the hitmaker fights off temptations to numb her pain via an unsavory method. “Forget about it, forget about him, yeah. Forget about me,” she pleads before moving into the bridge. After some ethereal adlibs, we’re right back into the heat of desperation.

Since 2016, no Ariana Grande album is complete without a double entendre-laden romp in the sack. Dangerous Woman had “Side To Side.” Sweetener had its unhinged title track. Thank U, Next has “make up.” Sonically, this is the closest we get to the demented styling Pharrell signed off on. Luckily, it works better here, if just barely. This time we move out of the kitchen (RIP licking bowls) and into the beauty room for some make up-smudging make-up sex. The sated queen also generously shouts out Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty. If the gods love us at all, they’ll arrange some sort of Rih-mix in the coming weeks. Then, I will unabashedly stan. If not, this isn’t a stand-out.

For an album inspired by heartbreak, the tracklist is surprisingly short on soul-crushing balladry. However, “ghostin” is good enough to meet the quota on its own. Over an atmospheric production, it features an apology to a current lover for being unable to shake memories of an ex. “You’ve been so understanding. You’ve been so good. And I’m putting you through more than one ever should,” she admits. “I’m hating myself cause you don’t want to admit that it hurts you.” Chill-inducing strings fill out the latter half of the track, and Ari’s feather-light vocals are perfectly utilized here. It also serves as a much-needed comedown after the ridiculous excesses before it.

Things pick back up slightly on the hazy “in my head.” This acts as a sequel of sorts to “imagine.” On the latter, the perpetually upside down diva dreamt of an idyllic relationship. “Can you imagine it,” she pleads. Here, she brings her fantasies even further to life by painting an unfitting lover with broad brushstrokes. “Here’s the thing. You’re in love with a version of a person you’ve created in your head,” best friend Doug Middlebrook claims on the intro. That becomes even more clear as the song unwinds. “My imagination’s too creative. They see demon, I see angel,” she laments. We’ve all been there, which makes the confession even more powerful.

That leaves us with one track left – current single “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored.” This one is more than just an iconic title. It’s also a lusty bop. Treading in Dangerous Woman territory, the subject matter is all about demanding an already-committed partner’s attention. Oh yeah, you cannot forget the *NSYNC sample. The “It Makes Me Ill” interpolation works so well here. While the song may not have been the most obvious choice for the LP’s third single (justice for “bloodline”), I wouldn’t be surprised to see it soar up the Hot 100. Everything Ari touches right now turns to gold, and this will likely be no exception.

With Thank U, Next, Ariana delivers the album I expected back in August. It bridges the gap between the polished, pop commodity she debuted as and the well-established industry heavyweight she is becoming. Endless debate can be had about whether the tracklist contains an “Into You”-level moment of pop excellence. For what it’s worth, I’d argue “ghostin” and “bloodline” could hold up. But those comparisons aren’t that important in the long run. What matters is that the hitmaker unveiled her most authentic body of work to date. And it is on par with some of her most critically acclaimed releases. Cohesive, relatable and staggering in scope and creative range, it’s another testament to her ever-growing star.

Score: 4/5

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