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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Review: “thank u, next”

Ariana Grande delivers an unapologetic version of herself

On Aug. 18, Ariana Grande released her fourth studio album, “Sweetener.” While the album was commercially and critically successful, there was a performative quality to the songs and lyrics that felt slightly disingenuous. The majority of the songs felt over produced and seemed to lack a raw emotional core. Only five months later, Grande released “thank u, next,” her most personal and authentic album yet.

In the months following the release of “Sweetener,” Grande’s life became a whirlwind of publicity and personal traumas. In June, she made headlines for her hasty engagement with comedian Pete Davidson after a few weeks of dating. Then, on Sept. 7 Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller passed away due to an accidental overdose. Struck with grief, Grande attempted to stay out of the headlines, but when her overly publicized relationship with Davidson started to crumble, Grande’s name was plastered all over celebrity news outlets.

As any artist would, Grande took the pain she was experiencing and channeled it into her craft. On Nov. 3, Grande released the titular single from the upcoming album. The R&B and pop inspired single takes a surprisingly at-peace look at Grande’s past relationships, as she thanks her ex-boyfriends (by name) for what each of them have taught her. “thank u, next” received 8.19 million streams on Spotify the day it was released, breaking the record for most streams in a single day for a female artist.

The song was an immediate success. The catchy beat and deeply personal references in the lyrics had everyone talking. The song, coupled with the homage to early 2000s rom-com flicks in the music video, signaled to fans that Grande was ready to open up and be more vulnerable in her music, while at the same time not taking herself too seriously.

Grande’s second single, “7 Rings,” debuted January 18 and sailed to the top of the charts. The song samples Julie Andrews’s “My Favorite Things” and depicts a lavish shopping spree at Tiffany & Co. She buys her friends matching diamond rings, a symbol of their friendship and a thinly veiled metaphor for the replacement of Grande’s engagement ring. The song marks a shift in her focus from romantic relationships to personal growth and self-care.

Then finally, on Feb. 8, the “thank u, next” album debuted. It spent two weeks at No. 1 on Billboard 200 Chart and was met with mostly positive reviews. The album feels more authentic than “Sweetener,” and listeners get a better sense of a sense of Grande’s struggles and who she beneath her carefully branded image.

This 12-track album was written over the course of two weeks and is Grande’s most personal yet. Everything about it feels authentic; Grande puts on no facade. She does not shy away from speaking to the hardships she has faced and instead sings about them with a delicate vulnerability, adding depth to her music.

Music producer Tommy Brown, who collaborated on the album, spoke with NPR Music about working with Grande.

“It was so inspiring to me to see how in charge and how involved she is every step of the way, from the writing to the vision to the storytelling and to even engineering and comping her own vocals,” Brown said.

The album opens with “Imagine,” a soft and tragic ballad about lost love. Grande wrote in a tweet that the song depicts a “simple, beautiful love that is now (and forever) unattainable.” In the light of Miller’s passing, the song reads as even more harrowing and tragic. Grande speaks to missing even the simplest aspects of a relationship after it’s over.

She sings about “Stayin’ up all night, order me pad thai / Then we gon’ sleep ’til noon.” The simplicity of the imagery, coupled with the emotion in Grande’s voice when she sings, captures the pain of mourning a past relationship. Grande’s whistle tones are impeccable and add even more to the hauntingly sorrowful tones in the song.

“Imagine” is followed by several strong and upbeat tracks. “Needy” is lyrically confessional and frank, as Grande lists her personal flaws over simple instrumentals. The lack of production in the song adds to Grande’s vulnerability, and the listener connects with Grande’s experiences. “NASA” is a smooth, catchy ode to self-care and taking time for oneself while “Bloodline” has become a standout hit due to its triumphant energy and its strong, thumping beat.

“Fake Smile,” the album’s fifth track, reveals Grande’s mindset during the tumultuous past months and having to be in the public eye during all of it. The track opens with a sample from Wendy Rene’s 1964 single “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” which gives the song a melancholic and reflective tone. Grande sings about the pressures of fame and its lack of privacy, along with the other traumas she is trying to cope with. She reveals the pain going on behind the scenes.

“I can’t fake another smile, / I can’t fake like I’m alright /And I won’t say I’m feeling fine, / After what I been through, I can’t lie,” the lyrics read.

Not all the songs on the album are quite as strong. Track seven, “Make Up,” is entirely forgettable and stands out as sounding immature and frivolous compared to the rest of the album.

Following “Make Up,” however, is “Ghostin” which might be the album’s strongest track. Grande opens up about experiencing Miller’s loss during a time when she was still engaged to Davidson. The complexities of this situation appears in the song, making it even more tragic. The instrumentals are soft and haunting. Her voice evokes such emotion from the lyrics, and listeners will be captivated — “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 closes with the unapologetic “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” This song samples ‘N Sync’s “It Makes Me Ill” and is utter fun. While the music video was met with a bit of controversy, it has still emerged as a fan-favorite. This is presumably due to the catchy and seductive beat, as well as the casual immorality of the lyrics.

Overall, Grande’s album is a triumphant work that emerged from hardship and created a raw and authentic perspective on grief, heartache and struggle, all while maintaining an air of confidence and hope. The songs mark a healing process and a shift in mentality for anyone attempting to overcome lost love, identity struggles or personal traumas.

In an interview with Billboard, Grande spoke about the healing nature that the production and release of this album has had on her mental state, saying “I made it with my best friends over the course of a really small period of time, and it kind of saved my life.”

Written By: Alyssa Ilsley — arts@theaggie.org


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