Review Summary: TL;DR: don't fake smiles, own your demons
When you’ve listened to any artist’s work with critical faculties for a long while, you inevitably start to pay attention to little cues and minute details that begin to fit into the bigger picture like jigsaw pieces. For instance, celtic folk musician Loreena Mckennitt once stated that her discography functions as a travelogue of sorts, absorbing the cultures of different countries she’s visited into her own work. So in essence, you’re getting her tried-and-true signature sound with a few new elements added every time to continue her artistic development. The same can be said for Ariana Grande, but rather than “travel,” it’s “experience.” With the absolute plethora of negative happenings in her life recently, she certainly has every right to make so much music in such a short time to address all of her personal difficulties. But surely, I can’t be the only one who’s noticed that ever since Sweetener
came out, there’s been one particular emotion and - by extension - theme that’s bubbled up to a dominant position in her music: anxiety
Not only anxiety, but an overwhelming sense of anxiety laid out over overwhelmingly laid-back trap beats. By far, my favorite tracks on Sweetener
were the ones that explored this contrast to its fullest extent. Why? Because it’s absolutely fascinating to hear the two extremes collide the way they do. Anxiety is a painful, draining thing to both experience and address; throw it on top of incredibly low-key beats and dreamlike synthesizers, and suddenly you’re being immersed in a spacious environment in which the rug could be pulled out from under you at any given moment. And - spoiler alert - Thank U, Next
is absolutely rife with these contrasting emotions. Despite having the fingerprints of so many co-writers and co-producers all over it, this album easily has the most personal stamp from Ari herself. Practically every song addresses some hardship she’s experienced in the past few years, but it sounds like she’s using these moments as a means of delivering heartfelt statements rather than as a form of damage control for her image and career.
But let’s steer the discussion back to that central concept of stress and anxiety, because it really does color the record in some fascinating ways. The reason it’s important to discuss here is because Thank U, Next
is a constant push-and-pull between relaxation and that little tick of urgency that’s always at the back of one’s head. “Imagine” is a strong enough opener that uses the subject of Mac Miller’s death - at least, allegedly - to expand to more existential questions and comments about the way Grande conducts herself day-to-day. But “Needy” is where things start to get really
interesting. A plaintive little tune about the singer’s addiction to neediness and being emotionally “messed up” constantly finds itself mired in these weird jazz-laden piano chords that are… just haunting. It’s like the dreamy nature of music is trying
to be relaxing, the lingering sadness and almost insomniac subject matter constantly interrupt the dream and ruin the peace. But it makes for incredibly relatable and compelling songwriting. Grande has effectively crafted the musical equivalent of being up at 2am with nowhere to go and yet no drowsiness whatsoever, something also highlighted by the likes of the high-tempo-meets-low-key R&B of “Bad Idea” and the strangely delirious and dizzying effects of “Make Up.”
When you go back to Ariana Grande’s very first studio album Yours Truly
, it’s fascinating how many genres and aesthetics she’s been able to transcend with her voice and her songwriting. Because, after all is said and done, it’s still her. This is the same voice that serenaded us back when the singer debuted all those years ago. But the fact that she can use her Mariah Carey-esque high register and blend it with grittier trap stylings without coming off as too forced or cringy - after already exploring genres as wide-ranging as soul, dance-pop, R&B, jazz, and even rock - is a real testament to her talents. Obviously we get some songs that are of a more traditional style, such as the lushly orchestrated ballad “Ghostin’” or the aforementioned opening ballad “Lush,” which could both be slotted neatly into Dangerous Woman
’s tracklist (the latter’s subject matter notwithstanding). But the moments in which her vocal/lyrical pain and the bass-boosted trap beats collide still seem to yield the best results on this album. They perfectly exhibit Grande’s increasingly nuanced lower register, as well as paradoxically humanizing her even more than the more organic moments. “NASA” is probably the best way to describe this approach, utilizing literal stellar imagery as a metaphor for self-discovery; the fat electronic beats beneath perfectly compliment the idea of space, while Grande sounds just reserved enough to keep things relatable and even reflective.
But that’s the thing: more than any other Ariana Grande album, Thank U, Next
is a true reflection record. I don’t think she pumped out the album as a way to oversaturate the market with her work and presence (although that’s working pretty damn well!), but instead as an impromptu creative burst to respond to all the turmoil surrounding her life. Because, as I mentioned before, there’s been a lot
of that. Grande deserves to put out such a sudden record after all she’s been through, and considering Thank U, Next
came out a mere six months after Sweetener
, it’s fucking astonishing how well-written and emotionally impacting it is. This is how you take something as serious and mentally damaging as anxiety and turn it into a positive release of emotion and energy; it may not always sound pretty, but it’s clearly stemming from a much more humble, heartfelt, and earnest place than where Grande started. She can’t fake her pain and her distress, so she’ll turn it into the act of bettering herself through her music… and that’s something I can’t help but admire.