Review Summary: Two tales of one Ari.
Pop has always been a solipsistic genre. That’s not a criticism, just a statement of fact. The biggest pop stars have never been interested in singing from someone else’s perspective. Because of that, pop music has the potential to be a unique form of self-expression, providing a window into the lives of people who live more opulently than most of us can imagine. However, that potential is often squandered with mad-lib lyrics and musical homogeneity, and it is difficult to ignore that most of the self-expression in pop music has already been expressed countless times by similar artists.
Ariana Grande leans into that solipsism, often for better but occasionally for worse. For a woman whose Wikipedia page’s second sentence starts with, “Born in Florida to a family of New York-Italian origin…,” Ariana looks awfully dark on the cover of thank u, next
. Her image has been curated so carefully since she left TV that a lot of people seem to think that she’s Latina (hint: she’s not), and it must be by design because it has allowed her to get away with everything from artificially darker skin to a poorly translated Japanese tattoo to the “blaccent” that is front-and-center in several of this album’s songs. It is hard to imagine, say, Katy Perry escaping unscathed after performing songs like “7 rings” or “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” both full of rap-style ad-libs and enunciation, or singing “Get in the car like skrrt
." Elvis may have borrowed liberally from black sources, but at least he never darkened his skin to gain cultural credibility.
This speaks toward a larger problem with recent pop music: swiping hip-hop’s style without paying attention to its substance. Hip-hop’s cultural dominance in the last ten years or so only became possible after a decades-long struggle for acceptance by musical revolutionaries that were not acknowledged as such for an egregiously long time. While there is nothing inherently wrong with Ariana and her songwriters/producers cribbing trap beats and hard attitudes from hip-hop, it is telling that nobody ever wants to steal the social and cultural commentary instead. Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” is used in “fake smile,” a song about being unafraid to display emotional honesty even if it doesn’t conform to the standard expected from women. The song is beautifully sung, and the subject is admirable, but the classic Wu-Tang Clan track that also sampled Rene’s song, “Tearz,” about black struggles with violence and flippant views of the dangers of STDs, comes to mind as an example of how risky this omnivorous approach to music and sampling can be. Even the music video for “thank u, next” uses Mean Girls
for some unknown purpose, showing Ariana as Regina George without the redemptive arc. It’s a reference for its own sake.
Disappointing as these aspects are, they fail to detract too much from what is otherwise a strong album. Gluttonous musical incorporation can be thrilling when it isn’t aimed at the least substantive aspects of hip-hop. “imagine” does not interpolate John Lennon’s song, but the lyrics and title are clearly meant to evoke him. Instead of imagining a world without religion or borders, Ariana wants a man to imagine a world where…they have sex. Though it wouldn’t get banned from the airwaves after a national tragedy, “imagine” is still a gorgeous introduction to thank u, next
, with grandiose strings and Ariana’s trademark whistling notes. Her voice and personality have never shone as clearly as they do here, and that is especially apparent after Sweetener
, a tepid pile of meandering songs and airy, almost inconsequential vocals. “NASA” posits Ariana as a literal star and suggests that a man play the role of the space agency, admiring her from afar. One of the album’s most insidious earworms, “NASA” lives and dies by Grande’s performance, perfectly balanced between reserved verses and her rapidly-modulating vocals in the chorus and outro.
The songs that hew closer to pop than hip-hop are the strongest because they show the most confidence, both vocally and musically. That there is even a disparity, however, points to the biggest problem with thank u, next
: its occasional lack of a clear identity. The number of producers and songwriters probably explains most of it, as songs written by committee (and a different committee from song to song, at that) will often sound like smorgasbords of ideas and sounds. Still, the album’s jostling dual identities – sometimes pop, sometimes hip-hop – are preferable to Pharrell’s baffling work on Sweetener
. Max Martin, a musical chameleon only in the sense that his music changes from white to black depending on the context, brings his ubiquitous presence to a few songs, and the varying quality of his contributions speak to the way that hip-hop has been co-opted by pop producers looking for the next big hit. “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” reconstitutes N*SYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill” with modern hip-hop swagger and liberal “yuh” ad-libs. Martin didn’t write “It Makes Me Ill,” but his affiliation with N*SYNC and his songwriting/production credit on Ariana’s song are indicative of the sea change in pop music since its heady days at the turn of the millennium. And lest more evidence of the death of album sequencing was needed, three singles are placed one after the other to end the album, sounding like loosies attached as bonus tracks.
Ariana took some heat for not addressing the Manchester shooting more directly on Sweetener
, but she was smart enough to know that doing so would have invited criticism for monetizing a tragedy. Mac Miller’s death, unfortunately, gives her the opportunity to explore her pain without fear of being blamed for exploitation. “ghostin” is the album’s best song, interpolating Miller’s “2009” and rendering it even more heartbreaking than it became after he passed. “Struck the fu
ck out/Then came back swinging,” he rapped, and now Ariana sings, “He just comes to visit me when I’m dreaming/Every now and then.” It’s enough to excuse the album’s flaws as ways to reckon with a monumental pain through new loves, through self-determination, and, yes, retail therapy and odes to capitalism. thank u, next
tells two tales of one Ari, a woman who can’t help leaning into pop’s worst excesses and cultural appetites, but who has also found herself cracked open by misfortune, aching but still willing to be openly vulnerable, to seek healing by singing backup for herself.