In 2019, it’s hard to decipher what is and isn’t pop music, and who is and isn’t a pop star. With the rise of streaming and the advent of the internet, you don’t have to amass heavy airplay on commercial radio, have a hit music video, or appear on late night television to dominate a music scene. Despite all this, though, Ariana Grande proves that super-stardom is salient as ever before. She stands firm as 2019’s dominant music superstar, and with the release of her new album thank u, next, it doesn’t appear that she will be dethroned anytime soon.
A good deal of Ariana’s current fame can be attributed to her storied past- a history with no shortage of emotional trauma, hardship and heartbreak. Two years ago, a terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester, United Kingdom resulted in the deaths of 22 of her fans and the injuries of many more. On top of that, her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller passed away due to an overdose in September 2018– an event which strained and ultimately ended Grande’s engagement with SNL’s Pete Davidson.
In short, Grande has been through a lot- not to mention that all of this transpired whilst she has been pinned beneath the unwavering gaze of the public at large. On thank u, next, Grande confronts the publicized turmoil of her personal life head on, all whilst flexing her athletic vocals over a variety of heavy-hitting R&B flavored pop instrumentals.
For most of the album’s runtime, the combination works quite well. Grande is in top form lyrically and vocally on the album’s titular track, “thank u, next.” As the initial lead single for the album, Grande addresses her personal history forthright and takes a surprisingly mature stance in regards to her paramours of days past. “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex,” Grande sings, without a note of acerbic intention. In tandem with a lush, glossy R&B chord progression, Grande has written one of the most emotionally healthy and danceable break up songs in recent memory- Taylor Swift be damned.
Across other tracks on the album, Grande finds success in navigating personal topics while retaining the sugary, infectious aspects of quality pop music. In the dancehall-flavored sway of “Bloodline,” Grande sings about her desire for a casual, no-strings attached relationship, urging her proverbial partner to “let this shit go.” It’s hard to imagine that Grande is addressing anyone else but Pete Davidson, given how he can’t keep his mouthshut about the break-up.
“Needy” is a declaration of Grande’s self-confessed insecurities and need for emotional support. “Lately I’ve been on a roller-coaster,” Grande croons, “Tryna get a hold of my emotions/But all that I know is I need you close.” The instrumental draws from R&B ballads, with Rhodes-esque keyboard chords accented by finger snaps and backup vocal harmonies.
Where Grande falters, though, is in her attempts to incorporate aspects of hip-hop and trap into her music. The song “7 Rings” is a soulless flaunt of wealth that betrays the themes of self-care and acceptance that run through thank u, next. “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems/Must not have had enough money to solve them,” Grande brags through a vocal melody interpolated from “My Favorite Things.”
“7 Rings” is part of a larger debacle surrounding issues of cultural appropriation. Princess Nokia claims that Grande plagiarized her in “7 Rings” from her track “Mine,” and criticizes her for mentioning hair weaves in the song’s lyrics. To make matters worse, Grande got a tattoo that supposedly said “7 Rings” to commemorate the single- but it was misspelled. As of now, Grande has the phrase “Japanese BBQ Finger” permanently emblazoned upon her palm.
None of this, though, seems like it will dismantle the cult of personality surrounding Grande or slow her steady trajectory towards the pinnacle of popular music. thank u, next is Grande in top form, with tight songwriting and vocal performances albeit with a few tasteless missteps.
3 out of 5 stars.