Review Summary: music for who people are, not who people should be
Ariana Grande is the only important popstar right now. Artists that were everywhere five years ago have vanished from musical relevancy faster than any of us were actually ready for. She's the only one who has survived during an era when pop doesn’t matter, because she's never put out a project that didn't give everything she had to the listener. The only artists who could fight her are ones who haven't dropped anything in years. It's great that we have at least one artist with the budget to hire whoever she wants releasing music like a much more desperate artist, one who knows her popularity peak won't last.
This doesn't mean thank u, next
is full of filler or anything - every track here feels intentional and ahead of the curve. Her clear and dynamic voice is contrasted with short, deep vocal cuts on almost everything. These little chops help add a sense of cohesion to a variety of themes and styles throughout, a signature sound for an artist who has always struggled a bit to find an identity. Working with a small, niche collection of producers and writers, from her usual Victoria Monet and Max Martin to newer or more understated talents like Charles Anderson and Nathan Perez, has clearly benefited. Styles she has perfected through the years - Mariah-style whistle tones and key changes in "imagine," horn-heavy reggae-infused pop in "bloodline," and Sweetener
-esque twinkling empowerment in "makeup" - all align here, along with a few new tricks. "nasa" layers bubblegum chants about space over a subtle future bass beat, the bop every fan was looking for. "bad idea" is actually one of her best in years, using a hip-hop instrumental and high-pitched "uh-huh!"s to further the genuine tension of her songwriting instead of just trying to make it happen like so many other artists on the charts right now, finishing it off with a string section and a screwed-up, slowed chorus. "7 rings" takes that interest a step further, going into an actual trap flow (enough so that artists from Soulja Boy to Princess Nokia have all claimed she stole it from them) which fits her style, especially over the "My Favorite Things"-interpolating hook. And the title track, wow. Cloud rap finally has its influence on the charts and it's better than anyone could have imagined, with voices popping like bubbles, cymbals drilling in the hook, and grooving bass driving it all forward. This song feels like the template of the album, and beyond that, the lyrical climax.
Historically, "good" music has always been about recovery from turmoil, almost always in the form of men bouncing back from or otherwise dealing with rejection. Although criticized, some men have also been allowed to receive nearly universal praise for claiming their success, and inspiring others with their lifestyle, even sometimes for jumping headfirst into total hedonism. Women on charts rarely even have the luxury to write about success, and almost never receive praise for it the way men do. This album is about Grande coping with her success in the face of rejecting others, abandonment issues, and the torture she goes through coping with that. If you like Kanye West or Future, you should have absolutely no issues with these lyrics, but people inevitably will anyway. This is not a shallow album, it just deals with issues that people don't want to accept from women. Songs like "ghostin" seem to grapple with the complex issues at hand with death of an ex, presumably from the perspective of dating someone else while dealing with it (rumor is it samples "2009" and references "Cinderella," both Mac's). Tabloids and music boards would rather think it's about ignoring men for attention or driving men to suicide (this interpretation of Miller's death, by the way, is easily one of the most offensive and blatantly false things to say about mental health and overdoses), but further searching makes it clear that she's trying to say something to a world that punishes her every time she speaks out. No wonder she hides her messages behind titles like that one, "thank u, next," a song about genuine appreciation for her past and hoping to move on rather than the petty and insensitive diss to her exes so many think it is, and "break up with your girlfriend, I'm bored" - which itself was a replacement for another song that she decided we were not ready for. I can't really blame her, when virtually everything she says is misinterpreted under the sexist guise that she has to be a genuinely unkind person.
For all the layers and depth here, this is still very clear to the people she made the album for - her stans and herself. In fact, it might be the most trim, intentional album she's ever dropped. While it doesn't have the deeply obvious emotional narrative Dangerous Woman
had, it's still cohesive in a way she's been struggling with her whole career. Stylistically, everything's connected. Any moment you love on a song here has an element you can find somewhere else, and everything flows forward with very few jarring moments, a first for her. It feels like a complete picture, one about what it feels like to have your heart perpetually broken, to deal with temptation and distraction constantly, and to blame yourself. Ariana has gone through some of the most public humiliations, disasters and shamings of any post-Britney artist, and continues to emerge all the stronger and more consistent for it. Her music mirrors this maturity. I hope in a future era, we have a better world so it can be reflected a little brighter.