Ariana Grande is currently the world’s biggest pop star. She headlined Coachella the past two weekends and she’s broken numerous records; most notably, with the release of thank u, next, she’s joined The Beatles as the only act to monopolise the top three slots on the US singles chart. She also monopolises news headlines, including a recent amusing story when she was inadvertently tattooed with the Japanese characters for barbecue grill. After opening her career with stints on Broadway and Nickelodeon, she’s become more interesting over time, gaining my attention with this track from 2018’s Sweetener.
Grande’s blessed with an amazing voice with a large range, and uses it well. While divas of former generations would display their vocal chops over slow, adult contemporary ballads, Grande occupies a sweet spot between pop and R&B, energetic and earthy. Her delivery is influenced by hip hop, and she’s the ideal pop star for a musical world in which hip hop is a dominant cultural force. Her voice never overshadows her material, but instead enhances each song with effortless vocal gymnastics, like her whistle notes in the opening ‘imagine’.
At the age of 25, thank u next is Grande’s fifth album, and it was released only six months after August 2018’s Sweetener. It’s a maverick move; the usual pop formula is to produce a blockbuster album, milk it with singles and tours, then lie low for a while to avoid overexposure.
Grande’s decision to release thank u, next so soon after Sweetener was partially dictated by circumstance. Some of Sweetener was written in response to the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, which claimed 23 lives at a show during Grande’s Dangerous Woman tour. Grande underwent further tragedy in September 2018, when former partner Mac Miller died from a drug overdose. Grande felt unable to tour and instead channeled her emotions into a new album.
Grande’s previous records were packed with guest stars; thank u next was recorded in a couple of weeks, and is low key and personal. A song named ‘Remember’ was cut when it was decided that it was too painful for Grande to release, but even without it, there’s the devastating ‘ghostin’, which deals with the tension that Grande’s ongoing feelings after Miller’s death had on her engagement to comedian Pete Davidson.
‘Ghostin’ is the album’s standout track, a beautiful tune. Over a wheezy synthesizer backing, the perfect backdrop, Grande delivers heartfelt lines like:
Though I wish he were here instead
Don’t want that living in your head
He just comes to visit me
When I’m dreaming every now and then
The album’s three best known songs surprisingly occupy the last three places on the record. Generally they’re weaker than the rest of thank u, next. ‘7 rings’ borrows the melody from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s ‘My Favourite Things’, and the song’s embrace of super-stardom and materialism is oddly belligerent. It’s also difficult to hear Grande reflective on the title track, then close with ‘break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored’, a flippant meme expanded into a song.
Because the singles are pushed to the end of the record, the album tracks have plenty of chance to shine, and the standard’s high. ‘bloodline’ finds an infectious groove that’s halfway between reggae and pop. The low key electric piano and elegant melody of ‘needy’ recalls Stevie Wonder’s 1970s prime, while also Grande sounds great on the stripped down moments of ‘imagine’.
thank u, next is a flawed but often very good record – when you consider that Sweetener was only released six months earlier, Grande has produced a lot of great music recently – combine the best songs from the two projects and there’s an all time spectacular pop record. Grande’s still only 25, and hopefully yet to reach the peak of her potential.