Sunday, February 10, 2019

Review: Thank U, Next • Ariana Grande

Six months ago, the world was very much concerned about the protection and validation of Ariana Grande. Her personal life held unprecedented importance in pop culture as she entered her first album cycle since both her most painful tragedy and her happiest triumph: A bombing took the lives of fans at a Manchester concert a year prior, but she was just moments into an engagement with comedian Pete Davidson. The three singles lifted from Sweetener landed nicely on the Billboard charts while Grande became a mainstay of tabloids and entertainment news. Her star status grew from pop star to boldface celebrity, but there was a widespread feeling of obligation to insulate her from tabloid criticism or negativity.

Grande’s commercial success has grown even stronger since then, with her newest record, Thank U, Next, touting two singles that debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100. The popular consensus on her, however, is alarmingly different. Perhaps she became a much larger star in a much shorter time span than most people can process or accept; maybe it’s just a reflection of mental health’s fleeting, somewhat manufactured importance on social media. Regardless, it seems that Ariana Grande has been ushered into the ranks of more long-standing pop stars like Britney Spears and Lady Gaga, who have spent good chunks of their careers in an unfair cycle of being ridiculed and adored in equal increments.

She seems to be at her worst and her best simultaneously. The wheels fell off her personal life midway through the promotion of Sweetener, when ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died of a drug overdose and she broke off her engagement with Davidson, and her bloated star power has left her vulnerable to more online attacks, including a large-scale ridicule after she mistakenly had “barbecue grill” tattooed on her hand in Japanese. But dangerously enough, it is the intermingling of her rocky relationships and her music that landed her atop the Billboard Hot 100, somehow for the first time in her hit-filled career. "Thank U, Next," a minimalist pop tune and Grande’s first hit single not to mandate vocal prowess, name drops each of her exes with a vocal wink at the end of each line.

Despite being her most uninteresting album musically, Thank U, Next is her most dedicated to adhering to one palette; for the first time in her career, she isn't the clay for producers and featured artists to mold. The album is very much akin to its namesake cut: modern and rhythm-heavy, just slightly undercooked, and vocally undemanding. But for what it lacks in musicality, it makes up in personality. If Dangerous Woman, for example, proved that Ariana Grande is confident in her sexuality, then Thank U, Next shows that she can hold that confidence in even the strongest turbulence. Each song is tailor-made for this exact moment in her life, giving equal importance to her upper hand ("7 Rings," "Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored") and her underlying unhappiness ("In My Head," "Fake Smile").

Listening like an Alessia Cara song with grit and sharper tongue, "Fake Smile" suffers an identity crisis. But thematically, "Fake Smile" is to Ariana Grande today as "Piece of Me" was to Britney Spears in 2007. The most straightforward documentation of her personal life right now, it bridges the ethereal sadness of the Mac Miller tribute "Ghostin" and the roaring fire of the Cardi B-indebted, no-strings-attached confetti cannon "Bloodline." But of course, that isn't to discount the instantly polarizing flexes on the grimy, dark-toned "Break Up With Your Girlfriend" and "7 Rings," which interpolates Julie Andrews' "My Favorite Things" over a disjointed beat. In a way, the latter bridges the gap between her past and present, paying homage to her past life as a quirky, unabashed theater geek.

Though it is wedged between Sweetener and its world tour, Thank U, Next is not intrusive to that record's narrative. Rather, it is the postscript that most authors don't dare reveal, amending the happily ever after. Tracks like "NASA," an infectious cut that uses the aeronautics administration as a segue into needing space from her ex, and "Bad Idea," a trendy call for a quick rendezvous laid atop a plucked guitar and wobbly bass, are assumed to reveal the clarity of hindsight. Given the record's timeliness and reports that the album was largely written in two weeks, there may be an assumption that it was made hastily. But for better or worse, it seems the tight timeline flattened out the peaks and valleys of her past records, forcing her into a singular, succinct vision for the first time in her career.

Thank U, Next is available now under Republic Records.

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