Ariana Grande: Thank U, Next review – Pop superstar at her defiant, brilliant best
This is the work of an artist rooted in their specific vision and unwilling to compromise
Ariana Grande: Photograph: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Thank U, Next
Ariana Grande’s remarkable fifth studio album – her second in six months – arrives as her spat with the Grammys has taken a turn for the vitriolic. The controversy adds a layer of melodrama to a record already steeped in turmoil, assembled as it was in the shadow of the fatal overdose of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and her separation from Saturday Night Live comic Pete Davidson.
Grande, a one-time Nickelodeon teen star, had announced she would skip Sunday night’s Grammys in a dispute over whether she could perform her new single 7 Rings in its entirety. The producers wanted her to include it in a medley. Grande felt she should sing it as recorded. The bad blood was ratcheted up when Grammy’s producer, Ken Ehrlick, asserted Grande, nominated for two awards, had been in talks to appear at the event. Alas, he added, she had “felt it was too late for her to pull something together”.
This earned a thunderous rebuke from the 25-year-old. “I’ve kept my mouth shut but now you’re lying about me. i can pull together a performance over night and you know that, Ken,” she said in a tweet that waggled its tongue both at the Grammys and at entry-level grammar. “It was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you, that i decided not to attend. i hope the show is exactly what you want it to be and more.”
Here was confirmation that, just like 2018 Grammys boycotter Lorde, Grande is nobody’s pop moppet. That same message is conveyed clearly and gloriously on Thank U, Next. Speaking to Billboard magazine in last year, Grande revealed she had done her time on the pop conveyor belt. Henceforth she would play by rules of her design, just as male artists have been permitted to do for generations.
This she does with white-hot aplomb. Thank U, Next veers from the highs of post-breakup empowerment to the lows of the death of Miller last September and the ongoing emotional fallout from the 2017 Manchester bomb attack, in which 23 of her fans died (she had performed at Dublin’s 3Arena two nights previously).
Above all, it is is the work of an artist rooted in their specific vision and unwilling to compromise. Then that was the message already communicated by 7 Rings. The track is a bare-boned gut-puncher that reboots the Rogers and Hammerstein staple My Favourite Things as a brutalised anthem for post-Parkland shooting Gen Zers.
“Been through some bad shit, I should be a sad bitch,” Grande coos. “Who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?” It’s an enormously cheering if slightly terrifying sound of a young woman – chaperoned by men through her career – discovering her roar.
Alongside the defiance, though, are glimmerings of a pain she may well be processing for the rest of her life. She suffered PTSD in the wake of the Manchester bombing and her tentative recovery served as the unstated theme of last August’s Sweetener. She appeared upside down on the cover of that record – an acknowledgement of a world tipped on its head.
Grande maintains the same topsy turvy pose on the sleeve of Thank U, Next. This may be interpreted as acknowledging the personal travails that have continued rip the rug from beneath her. She has over the past 12 months endured the double loss of Miller and of her break-up from Davidson. Both are conjured with on ethereal grinder Ghostin where she sings – to them, and also perhaps to herself – “If you were anybody else, probably wouldn’t last a day”.
Thank U, Next is ultimately more interested in confession than celebration
Grande, along with everything else, possesses one of the purest pop voice this side of Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. Early on this was as a ululating monkey on her shoulder, even her smartest songs diminished by over-wrought vocals.
She had however, learned to contained the beast by Sweetener and on the follow-up both her restraint, and her ability to deploy the full force of her singing as required, are even more impressive.
Cooing over a skittering beat on Imagine (co-produced by Nicki Minaj collaborator Pop Wansel) she flashbacks to the halcyon early days of a romance – “why can’t you imagine a world like that?” – even as she tacitly acknowledges fairytale endings are absolutely the last thing life has planned for her.
She later sets controls for the outer stratosphere of melancholia on NASA – a r’n b creeper in which she dissects her pain while keeping self pity at bay. “I’m in deep space, I’m in deep space,” she croons, taking comfort in the isolation.
But Grande didn’t get to where is is today – at the summit of pop’s food chain – by taking her audience’s attention span for granted. She’s back to hit-making first principles with a bang on Bloodline, a red-hot hookup with Swedish smash hit Svengali Max Martin. And yet Thank U, Next is ultimately more interested in confession than celebration. The point is underscored by closer Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored a sultry exorcism in which Grande seeks merciful oblivion in the arms of a forbidden lover.
It has placed her beyond mere chart music and into the pantheon of great confessional singers
It’s one of many thrilling and chilling moments on a record that builds on the poised tempestuousness of Sweetener and underscores what a fascinating a pop star Grande is morphing into. She came of age as just another teen triller but, battered, bruised yet never defined her setbacks, here she stands proud and unyielding.
Where does she go from here? Not to the Grammys, if her social media ventings are any clue. Nor is she quite positioning herself as a pop star for all seasons. Thank U, Next is forceful and fascinating yet hardly machine-tooled with the casual listener in mind. The price of entry is a fascination with Grande’s traumas.
In that respect it has placed her beyond mere chart music and into the pantheon of great confessional singers. That so many feel invested in her suffering and recovery is testament not only to her virtuosity as a vocalist but also to the soul-searing honesty with which she wrestles her demons to an uneasy standstill. If you care about survival, redemption and empowerment, this is an album for you.