album review

Thank U, Next Is a Phoenix Moment for Ariana Grande

Photo: YouTube

There is a magic number of times people can see your name before they start to resent it a little. It’s nobody’s fault. Round-the-clock access to everyone’s thoughts and feelings means there’s always someone somewhere growing sick of your shit. It can be healthy — sometimes we need a kick in the shin when we’re heading in the wrong direction — or it can be toxic. Living and loving in public is tough; doing it while a chorus of onlookers call your choices into question can be unnerving. As Ariana Grande’s fame reaches critical mass, the public’s scrutiny has risen to match it. The response to her whirlwind romance with Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson was a master class in overexposure killing a buzz; over time, cute “Grandson” portmanteaus and “big dick energy” jokes descended into not-so-subtle schadenfreude. The eventual split was as contentious as could be expected — a pop star with a dedicated army of fans and a comic with a weekly prime-time outlet for his jokes make a powder keg waiting to blow. Neither one has had an easy time over the last year. Grande still seems profoundly affected by the passing of Mac Miller. The breakup sent Davidson, who is candid about his mental health journey, to a dark place.

Sweetener, the perky love album Grande released at the peak of the “Grandson” frenzy, hits differently now. It’s a document of a moment more fleeting than the music written about it. Across songs like “The Light Is Coming,” “No Tears Left to Cry,” and “Breathin,” Sweetener taught Grande’s fans that bad times are temporary and conquerable. The message was vital, but it felt a little performative, like someone telling people what they need to hear in a rough patch rather than giving voice to the frustrations, rational or irrational, that we all work through in a bind. There’s barely a bad record in the batch, but it felt like Sweetener was holding something back, settling for motivation and good cheer to avoid some of the discomfort of vulnerability. Grande’s decision to get back to work on new music right away seemed like pushing the envelope, but letting a bunch of songs she wrote about her ex ring out for another year might have felt stranger still. This week’s Thank U, Next is a phoenix moment for Ariana Grande. She’s overcome two years of impossible trials, only to burn brighter. This isn’t a breakup album, like the lead single’s string of messages to exes might suggest. It’s a list of demands and a statement of hunger for someone willing to fulfill them without causing too much fuss.

Thank U’s survey of the peaks and valleys of the single life doesn’t ring any more or less sincere than Sweetener’s celebration of monogamy. But the new album is a little more fascinating as a study of the nebulous spaces between friendships and romantic relationships. These songs track prickly scenarios: the partnered crush who doesn’t know you’d play home-wrecker in a heartbeat, the friend with benefits you hazard another romp with even though he’s starting to text you that he misses you, the one you still love but can never see again, the one whose faults you chose to ignore until they became an obstacle, like a beautiful muscle car that turns out to be a noisy gas guzzler. Thank U negotiates most of these situations without resorting to open cruelty, although “Bloodline” goes for it with a stern warning for a hookup partner expecting more than a hookup. “In My Head” delivers devastating lines near the chorus — “Look at you / Boy, I invented you / Gucci tennis shoes / Running from your issues / Cardio’s good for the heart / I figure we can work it out” — but the song is really about learning not to look for more from people than they’re willing to do for themselves, not tearing them down for turning out differently than you would’ve liked.

Thank U is also an album about getting other people to measure their expectations of you. “Fake Smile” is a heartbreaking tune in which Grande speaks honestly about the pitfalls of being a public figure, the events she’d rather avoid than attend, the parade of disheartening headlines about her private life, and the sense that while she’s happy with her career, she’s burned out on the stress that comes with it. “Needy” concedes that Grande can be draining, and “Bad Idea,” “Bloodline,” and “In My Head” admit in different ways that what she wants isn’t always what’s best for her. These songs’ willingness to turn a critical eye on the artist herself as much as on the list of temporary lovers in its sights is a sign of growth. Swatting at people who did you wrong is easy. Figuring out what draws you to them in the first place is advanced studies. “Ghostin” handles both with grace and withering honesty. Over a bed of woozy synths and strings, Grande sings delicately about a situation she described succinctly to a fan on Twitter as, “feeling badly for the person you’re with because you love somebody else. Feeling badly because he can tell he can’t compare.” There’s no villain in this story, just people trying to make the most of bad luck.

As Ariana Grande’s songwriting sharpens, she’s returned to the production team responsible for the neat R&B-pop of Dangerous Woman. Max Martin, Ilya Salmanzadeh, and TB Hits produced the majority of the album alongside Andrew “Pop” Wansel and others. That doesn’t mean that Thank U rolls the clock back to the snazzy pure pop of “Be Alright,” “Greedy,” and “Into You.” The hip-hop elements Pharrell brought to the last album inform much of the new one, but in place of the Virginia producer’s odd and very specific tics and obsessions is a mannered, minimalist approach to trap and R&B that has been the subject of some debate this year, as reservations about the trap house and hairweave fixations of the single “7 Rings” and the advancing swarthiness of the singer’s tan turned into complaints that Thank U, Next was Grande’s step into the long line of pop singers who have used hip-hop to muddy up their squeaky clean images, then ditched it when they got bad press for it. It’s a necessary dialogue, because America is still a place that celebrates people who mimic aspects of blackness while mistreating people for being born into it. The “7 Rings” song and video did a little too much pantomiming blackness and not enough uplifting of it. We should listen to women of color who’ve expressed discontent about the song commodifying their hair-care practices while they continue to face pressure in workplaces for the same.

That said, Ariana Grande shouldn’t be made to pay for the (quite frankly more garish) mistakes of her peers and predecessors. Thank U, Next isn’t Bangerz, an obvious grab at Southern black cool by a singer who has since divorced herself from it. This isn’t Reputation or Witness, whose attempts at rapping and working with rappers felt like savvy business decisions but not so much like genuine exchanges of ideas, with all due respect to the great Future verse on Taylor’s “End Game.” We should judge Ariana Grande and her music on their adeptness at honoring the styles they dabble in and push for more and better representation where possible. We should lift up the producers and songwriters of color working behind the scenes to help create records like these, because too many conversations about race and pop music are conducted as though the artist and the primary producer are the face of the album, when that’s not always the case. We should check Ariana when she’s wrong, because she seems like she listens. It’s okay to push back, to be annoyed. It’s natural, even. Let’s also give a good, honest R&B album its due.

*A version of this article appears in the February 18, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Thank U, Next Is a Phoenix Moment for Ariana Grande