Just under a year ago, Ariana Grande sang that she had “no tears left to cry” over a light synth and a toy xylophone. Only a few months later, Grande retracted the statement via Twitter, remarking “remember when i was like hey i have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAAA b*tch u thought.”
Ariana had no problem admitting her own faults then and has no problem doing the same on her fifth studio album, Thank U, Next. “I’m obsessive and I love too hard/Good at overthinking with my heart,” she sings on “Needy,” a standout R&B track with an undeniably self-aware hook: “I can be needy/Tell me how good it feels to be needed.”
Coming only five months after Sweetener and recorded in only two weeks, Thank U, Next is Grande’s best album yet, a musical testament to her ability to work best when she has the most to say in the least amount of time (for reference, My Everything, the 2014 modern-pop Bible, came less than a year after her debut).
While a carefree attitude has been adapted by Grande on past records, it’s truly believable for the first time on Thank U, Next. Between the brutal honesty of “Bloodline” (“Don’t want you in my bloodline/Just want to have a good time”) and the even more extreme “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” Ariana is over pretending. “I know it ain’t right/But I don’t care,” she sings, and she really sells that last point, even more so than she did on a Dangerous Woman B-side literally titled “I Don’t Care.”
Though Ariana never officially killed off her past persona a la Taylor Swift, the album presents numerous juxtapositions to the “old Ariana.” In contrast with the “Be Alright” Ariana whose biggest issue was a donut-licking scandal, there’s “Fake Smile” Grande, the girl whose been through more tragedy in the public eye than some will experience in their lifetimes. “F*ck a fake smile” she sings, a statement she’s earned the right to make.
Thank U, Next is not a complete downer though. On “Bad Idea,” Grande speed races through a moment of desperation. “I got a bad idea/Yeah, I’ma call you over here to numb the pain,” Ariana confesses. “Forget about it, yeah/forget about him, yeah/forget about me.” On “7 Rings,” she sings of treating herself and her friends, because if she has the money, then why not? Like she says, “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems/Must not have had enough money to solve them.”
Where Sweetener had its moments, Thank U, Next is a moment in and of itself. Pharrell’s distinct production on the former pushed Grande aside, her vocals acting as an afterthought to the bells and whistles that distracted the record. On Thank U, Next, Ariana sticks with a producition team of long-term friends and collaborators including Tommy Brown, Victoria Monét and the unmatchable Max Martin.
The rewards of this decision are found in places like the stunning outro of “Bad Idea,” or the hauntingly gorgeous ballad “Ghostin,” moments which tie the record together that Sweetener and the rest of Grande’s previous efforts lacked.
A lot of tragedy, mistakes and pain lead up to the release of Thank U, Next, but it is not an album about regret. Instead, it’s a celebration of the moment, a snapshot of a tumultuous time in Ariana Grande’s life that just happens to be some of her strongest music to date.