Ariana Grande: Thank U, Next review – a lodestar for how complicated life can be

In the wake of huge traumas, Ariana Grande has pumped out the hits, challenged the pop machine – and now releases an album she rustled up in two weeks

Once, Ariana Grande was a versatile pop singer whose visual signature – the swinging ponytail – defined her in a crowded marketplace. I saw the US singer’s 2017 tour a couple of nights before the bombing at her Manchester Arena show, and back then, Grande was merely good – a brighter pop operative than most – if a little breathy.

Since then, she has become a lodestar for how complicated contemporary life can be, and a bona fide role model for how to carry oneself through it with the correct mixture of defiance, humour and sensitivity. Grande would roll her eyes at the idea of saintliness, but Rolling Stone magazine – riffing on the title of her recent single, God Is a Woman – declared: God Is This Woman.

Grande has been pumping out music while contending with the bomb attacks, which killed 22 people and injured hundreds more in May 2017, with the PTSD she suffered after the event and, shortly afterwards, breaking up with a fellow musician, Mac Miller, who went on to accidentally overdose on drugs. No Tears Left to Cry, from her Grammy-winning 2018 album Sweetener, is the key text in which Grande deals with the first two traumas.

On her latest album, which comes just six months after Sweetener, she often reserves her right to be a little wobbly. But she won’t be pushed around, like pop solo female vocalists so often are. Grande snubbed last week’s Grammys ceremony after creative differences with the show’s producer that were aired in public.

Breaking up with yet another public figure – comedian Pete Davidson, the main thrust of Thank U, Next – might seem like small beer compared with the fallout from Manchester and Miller. But it looms large in the 25-year-old’s life, tangled up as it is in the emotions of the former two events.

Watch the video for 7 Rings.

One atmospheric song here, called Ghostin’, sums it up: it’s about how sad Grande feels for her (now ex-) beau when he has to put up with her feelings over his deceased predecessor.

“I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again over him,” she aches. It’s a pretty unique situation in pop, one that elevates the song beyond its canonical deployment of floatiness and strings. Grande recently revealed that she recorded different versions of the track Thank U, Next, one for each scenario: she and Davidson stayed together, or they broke up, or they got married.

Thanks to 7 Rings, we know what happened to the ring possibility: Grande dropped several grand on diamonds for her female friends. The song is a hit, but isn’t actually all that great, using Rodgers and Hammerstein’s My Favourite Things as its sing-song musical base.

The rest of the album remains of interest for its evolutions in sound, delivery and attitude. The finger-clicking Needy is a plea to a lover, stating that, having been through all she has been, Grande is OK with being “way too damn needy”.

“Sorry if I say ‘sorry’ way too much,” she trills on a tune that mixes the contemporary pose of “giving no fucks” with an almost barbershop feel – a very Grande place to land. Fake Smile finds Grande making her apologies for leaving a party.

“After what I been through, I can’t lie,” she sings. This is perfectly beguiling, situation-appropriate pop, but none of it comes as a huge surprise, exactly – stylistically or content-wise – after Sweetener.

Ariana Grande 2019 press publicity portrait supplied by PR

One of the best songs here, Imagine, is stranger and more compelling. Boasting pregnant silences, it visualises an alternative reality where Grande and Miller could just have eaten pad thai and drunk champagne in the bath, rather than being derailed by his drug problems.

Imagine achieves more than this, though: it nails on Grande’s technical virtuosity, with the singer hitting whistle-like frequencies, the tic for which Mariah Carey, Grande’s vocal foremother, was famous. It also deploys an uncommon time signature: woozy 6/8 (not quite the 3/4 of a waltz). Grande’s vocals are R&B, but owe much to the staccato of hip-hop: “Click, click, click, and post,” she sings of the pivotal role Instagram has in her relationships.

Also intriguing is the minx-ish Bad Idea, a Max Martin track that reintroduces the idea of Grande as a dangerous woman (the title of her 2016 album). It’s a notion followed up on the closing track, Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored – a trap-pop entreaty that paints Grande as a bad girl, trying to steal someone else’s man.

The development of Grande’s sound is not always without hiccups, however. Bloodline is a top tune with a great diss (“Don’t want you in my bloodline”), but it feels like a bandwagon-jump on to dancehall. This album was made in two weeks, when Grande felt the need to keep on turning emotions into tracks; she has gone on record with her impatience with (female) pop’s lengthy promotional timetable, and her desire to emulate the quick turnaround of contemporary (male) hip-hop – “drop it the way these boys do”, she specified to Billboard.

That impetus is more than laudable, it’s probably essential. Less so, though, is Grande’s tendency to nod so hard at the delivery and content of hip-hop (and hip-hop-leaning R&B) that half the internet starts accusing her of cultural appropriation, using too much fake tan, acquiring a “blaccent” and actual plagiarism.

Soulja Boy, 2 Chainz and Princess Nokia have all bristled at the similarity between Grande’s half-rap on the track 7 Rings and their own flows. For her part, Grande has apologised if she offended anyone; a 2 Chainz remix acknowledges the similarities between his work and hers.

Having displayed lung power, sold records, looked askance at the pop machine and suffered in new and horrendously modern ways, Grande has pulled a diva move that few could have predicted: she has now become controversial.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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