Whether you are charmed or irritated by Ariana Grande’s ebullient persona and impulsive gaffes, thrilled or exhausted by her popular ascendance, there’s no denying that she is now very, very famous. It’s possible to feel either way about her new album thank u, next, the culmination of a rollercoaster year that’s seen her through a whirlwind engagement and breakup with Pete Davidson and the unexpected death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller. With her previous album Sweetener barely six months old, Grande has zoomed ahead, determined to keep the hits as timely as the headlines. And yet thank u, next feels less like savvy marketing by an of-the-moment star—though it’s that, too—than a diamond-encrusted tiara atop the head of a new pop queen.
If Sweetener cast itself as a form of recovery from the terror attack at Grande’s 2017 Manchester concert, thank u, next opens a new and more intimate chapter. Replete with fresh autobiographical material and a renewed emotional perspective, it finds Grande tempering her natural enthusiasm with the pointed wisdom of a woman who wised up fast. Sweetener’s lovestruck swoon and idiosyncratic Pharrell rhythms are gone; thank u, next cracks with the stylistic influence of trap, setting shuddering beats and ringtone synths against classically pop strings that swirl at every emotional climax. It is bassy and steamy and, in the era of the stamina album, a mercifully reasonable length. It features “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” the track that makes it seem as though Grande has quit tweeting song titles and begun singing tweets. Already it is her most commercially successful release, spawning her two biggest singles to date: the beatific title track “thank u, next” and the brazen “7 rings.”
There are good reasons for Grande to make another album so quickly, and not all of them are about writing and production. Her summer tour, now somewhat anachronistically named after Sweetener, kicks off next month. When “thank u, next” was released as a loosie last fall, a conventional timeline might’ve destined it for a deluxe edition. Instead, the song met a reception so rapturous it risked eclipsing the prior album’s singles. Grande and her circle of frequent collaborators—including singer-songwriters Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx and producers Max Martin and Tommy Brown—snapped into action, reportedly creating thank u, next in little more than two weeks. While the album hardly feels dashed-off, it is perceptibly the product of quick work. There are no guest features, instead just a few audio quotations, like the voicemail message from friend Doug Middlebrook that opens “in my head.” At times the writing struggles to keep pace: The concepts behind songs like “needy” and “fake smile” are as relatable as they are predictable, and begin to stretch thin after a couple of minutes.
Still, there is an awful lot to like, beginning with the catchy ethereality of “NASA,” a kind of inverted sequel to Sweetener’s coy stay-the-night plea “goodnight n go.” The latest evolution of Ariana Grande needs space and lots of it, an interstellar metaphor she couches in hollow phasered synths and winking humor (“you know I’m a star”). Where earlier hits like “Side to Side” and “God is a woman” wore a fig leaf over nakedly sexual intentions, make-up sex appreciation jam “make up” just wants to share that Fenty Beauty brand highlighter glow. Most remarkable is “Ghostin,” a tender, apologetic exploration of love and grief that makes for one of Grande’s strongest and most vulnerable songs yet. “Though I wish he were here instead / Don’t want that living in your head,” she sings, words widely understood to describe the lingering presence of Miller’s memory. “He just comes to visit me / When I’m dreaming every now and then.”
Where Sweetener was stabilized by the promise of true love realized, thank u, next documents a messier fight in the battle for self-acceptance. It is Grande’s task to make this emotional context as approachable as her visions of high-femme materialism are remote, to bridge the benevolence of “thank u, next” and the consumerist excess of “7 rings,” to pirouette when the listener’s head may spin. It’s a tricky balance, and she’s wobbled: an uninspiring 2 Chainz verse on the “7 rings” remix can’t really substitute for meaningful reflection on her role in popular music’s ever-accelerating appropriation cycle (and let’s not even talk about the barbecue tattoo). Sweetener, to me, is the better album, but the elaborate architecture of its beats can also sound fussy by comparison. Grande wanted to release more music more quickly, and with thank u, next, she’s leveraged less-than-ideal circumstances to make it happen. I hope she wrote all those diamonds off as a business expense.