Ariana Grande is the newest princess of pop, and her most-recent release, Thank U, Next, is Sweetener‘s rebellious twin sister.
Ariana dropped Sweetener in 2018 with plans to promote it on tour, but tragedy struck and stopped the pop star in her tracks. The untimely passing of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller amidst an expeditious engagement to SNL actor, Pete Davidson, who battles mental health issues and publicly threatened to take his life following the end of their relationship (an affect from an unforgiving cyber witch hunt) only compounded Ariana’s trauma. She held a meeting with Republic Records and relayed she was unfit to tour. It was a bold move to tell the higher ups who’s actually higher up. In an effort to stay grounded when life tried taking her happiness, Ariana licked her wounds in the recording studio despite having just released an album five months prior. She recruited a couple of talented singer-songwriter-producer friends, including Victoria Monét, Tayla Parx and Tommy Brown, and hid away in the studio for several months to channel the angst of singledom into another album. All they needed was an endless supply of champagne, a pen, paper and Ariana’s wide-ranging vocal talents to transform her many emotions (what’s a fancy word for ‘relationships are exhausting and I’m super over men right now?’) into song. It produced her first-ever No. 1s with the album title track and “7 Rings,” which currently sits at the top of the Hot 100 for a third week and holds the record on Spotify for most streams in a single day by any artist ever.
Ariana Grande’s self-empowering new album, Thank U, Next, was made for the lonely hearts on Valentine’s Day. I imagine this year Ariana is somewhere low-key hating the Hallmark holiday. Nearly every new track details a shade of fury, sadness or resentment, a huge contrast from Sweetener. She actually had something to say this time around besides “did you miss me?,” and she did it with a candy-coated uppercut. Her opponent? The tiresome highs and lows of being with someone (cliff notes: the only person to fall in love with today is yourself). If you’re in a healthy, happy relationship, Thank U, Next has bops, and if you’re not… they’re anthems.
The record kicks off with the bittersweet, Pop Wansel-produced, power ballad “Imagine.” On it, Ariana dreams of the precious moments you share with a significant other after falling in love, like ordering late night take-out, sleeping till noon and then bragging about it on Instagram. It sounds pleasant, but reality eventually sets in because after the buttery pre-chorus and hooks, Ariana asks, “Can you imagine it?” She incessantly repeats it before rocketing into the stratosphere with whistle high-notes that share a likeness to early Mariah. The track was likely inspired by Mac. He had a tattoo of the word “Imagine” inked on his inner-arm. On social media, Ariana said the song is about living in denial. After Mac’s death, Ariana admitted having trouble believing it. “I really can’t wrap my head around it. We talked about this. So many times. I’m so mad, I’m so sad I don’t know what to do,” she said, referring to his addiction. “I’m so sorry I couldn’t fix or take your pain away. I really wanted to. The kindest, sweetest soul with demons he never deserved. I hope you’re okay now.”
On the surface, “Needy” also looks like a love song, but it’s actually quite melancholy. Brown’s haunting production soundtracks the singer’s honest admissions. “Lately I’ve been on a roller coaster / Tryna get a hold of my emotions,” she sings. “I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up.” Ariana is no stranger to revealing who’s behind the mask on TU,N. It’s a recurring theme throughout the LP.
However, “Imagine” and “Needy” don’t represent the overall F U vibe laced throughout Thank U, Next. Things start popping off with “NASA.” “Just one small step for woman, one giant leap for womankind,” Drag Race queen Shangela says in the opening line of the track. “NASA” is about feeling suffocated by a significant other, like floating through the infinite vacuum of space in search for fresh air. Upon first listen, I didn’t gravitate towards “NASA,” but over time it transformed into something magical. Not only is the play on words pop music magic, but if you’re over guys right now it’s pretty perfect.
“Bloodline,” the first in the Holy Trinity of tracks, is cut from the same cloth. Max Martin deployed an infectious trumpet melody and pounding beat to assist Ariana’s initiative to toy with boys. Men in the industry are notorious for rapping/singing about women as objects, but Ariana flips the script. “Don’t want you in my bloodline / Just wanna have a good time,” she croons. As in, Ariana is up for a roll in the sheets, but there’s 0% chance she’ll welcome a little Grande any time soon. It’s worth mentioning the woman speaking in the intro of the track about not being satisfied is Ari’s grandmother, AKA Nonna, AKA Marjorie Grande, and she’s not talking about men or *** like the song would lead you to believe – according to Ariana she’s actually lamenting her troubles finding a working hearing aid. You heard me.
“Fake Smile” is a grower. Justin Tranter, who’s executive producing Britney Spears’ tenth studio album, and has written some of the most influential pop songs in recent years, is the mastermind behind this one. It contains a sample of “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by soul singer, Wendy Rene. “Fake Smile” is a refreshing peek behind the curtain. Ariana is done pretending she’s happy, because life dealt her a ****** hand and acting like it didn’t feels worse. “I can’t fake another smile. I can’t fake like I’m alright, and I won’t say I’m feeling fine. After what I been through, I can’t lie,” she sings before giving the middle finger to faking a smile. It’s splendidly bratty, especially when Ari’s speak-rap breakdown kicks in.
Rounding out the Holy Trinity is “Bad Idea.” Martin’s sticky pop prints are all over this. An icy beat assists Ariana’s lonely truth. She seeks relief from heartbreak so desperately that she’s willing to engage with another guy to “numb the pain,” admittedly a bad idea. After Martin shows off a bit of production gymnastics by slowing the song into submission, the theme of casual *** extends into “Make Up.” The two-minute ditty details Ariana’s diabolically devious cat and mouse game with men. “I like to f–k with you just to make up with you,” she sings in the opening line. The twisted track is littered with confessions of purposefully setting a relationship ablaze because the phoenix rising from the ashes is that intoxicating. She’s like a pyromaniac who’s madly in love with putting out fires.
“Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which gloriously samples *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill” off their 2000 record, No Strings Attached, is another banger about mindless banging with no strings attached. Ariana’s heart is under lock and key, but a rich and famous girl’s got needs.
Thank U, Next isn’t celebrating Ariana’s independence. The songs are the result of an aftershock following relationships with two lovers who slipped through her hands. “Ghostin” tells a tale of Ariana’s internal conflict dealing with the loss of Mac following her engagement with Davidson. Martin flexed his studio skills with a harrowing whirl of winds while Ariana dodges flashbacks of painful memories. It samples Mac’s song “2009” off his 2018 album, Swimming. The anticipation of marrying someone you love should eclipse everything, but losing Mac was too much to bear. Ariana came clean about it on social media, explaining the track was about “feeling badly for the person you’re with bc you love somebody else. feeling badly bc he can tell he can’t compare…. and how i should be ghosting him,” she said. The term “ghostin” is a way to explain abruptly disappearing from someone’s life whom you were once intimate with, but it takes on an eerie double meaning in the form of Ariana’s guardian angel, Mac, who visits her in her dreams while she lay next to Pete.
The emotional growth extends into “In My Head.” The intro, spoken by Ariana’s close friend Doug Middlebrook, sheds light on Ariana’s complicated relationship with Miller. “You’re in love with a version of a person that you’ve created in your head, that you are trying to but cannot fix…. the only thing you can fix is yourself,” Middlebrook says. That’s exactly what Ariana does on Thank U, Next. She’s fully aware of the blinders, the fake smiles and mind games and wants no part of it anymore. Creating this album when she did wasn’t a ploy to buy time before embarking on a lengthy, lucrative tour. It wasn’t to get No. 1s. It wasn’t to escape. Thank U, Next is a symbol that when the universe inevitably flips your world upside down, isolates you then drags you into the abyss, it’s up to you and you alone to find the light.