Courtesy of Ariana Grande, here’s a new breakup phrase to fear: “Don’t want you in my bloodline.” Yes, the 25-year-old singer has thought ahead to the far-off century when she is but a leaf on Ancestry.com. She has determined the desired height and hair-shininess of the future influencers who will call her nonna. Your genome, sir, has been sequenced and found wanting. Take your trash DNA and go.
What a reversal. Grande’s bubblegum used to peddle true love and triumph, or it offered escape: Unplug your brain, take home a stranger, surrender to the stair machine. In the singer’s brief but seismically active career—quakes of news, aftershocks of hits—child-star rituals (like discovering sex) and awful realities (like terrorism) have been polished into tales of uplift. The starkly beautiful 2018 hit “No Tears Left to Cry” could well have been her last word on trauma. But only six months after the confetti-strewn therapy session of Sweetener, a fresh Grande album tends to new wounds while insisting, per one chorus, “Fuck a fake smile.” Thank U, Next, brittle and biting, could be called February: The Album.
Grande’s post-Sweetener life has been tough, with an ex’s fatal overdose and a kiss-and-break-up saga that could hardly have been more public. As important, though, has been her realization about why the imperial-diva business model of the Katy Perry class faltered in recent years. “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,’ ” she told Billboard, contrasting her cumbersome promotional machine against the single-a-minute flexibility of SoundCloud rap. So when the chatter around her split from the comedian Pete Davidson began to hijack her image, she quickly cut a song that snatched back control. “Thank U, Next” wasn’t musically pioneering, but it packed personality and specifics. Like with the hip-hop guys she’s jealous of, her new music names names.
Both the strengths and flaws of Thank U, Next stem from a sense that, with just a few months to make an album, a brash attitude and the appearance of honesty are really all that matter. Which is not to slight the music, created by Grande with the seasoned smash-makers Max Martin, TB Hits, and Pop Wansel, as well as with younger songwriters in her posse, such as Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét. Again and again, the team alloys Grande’s old tools—toy-box chimes, cutesy background refrains, satiny whispers and yodels—with stainless steel. The poignant opener, “Imagine,” for example, revisits her first flirtations with the now-deceased Mac Miller, using dreamy waltz time, airy whistle tone … and gear-grinding clanks. It’s a sandcastle built on rock bottom.
If the instrumentation is distinctive, so are Grande’s vocals, which continue her career-long melding of Broadway-isms, breathiness, and tricky rap imitations. But there’s something locked in, by the book, about the underlying tunes. With Police-like guitars, sludgy trip-hop interludes, and Grande cleverly underplaying her delivery, the Martin-produced “Bad Idea” has the elements of a future-pop breakthrough. Yet it distractingly cops the melody, cadences, and even abject but defiant tone of that Gotye hit from a few years ago, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Elsewhere, the swirling R&B of “In My Head” slathers on Grande’s tics—including a glass-shattering vocal run in the chorus—without landing a clean, memorable hook.
Yet Grande’s personal edge ensures that even the duller portions of the album will leave a mark. Rewriting mushy clichés with a wary eye, the singer empathizes with an omnipresent “you” but doesn’t ever give up agency to him. On the top-tier bop “NASA,” which evokes Grande’s sonic godmother Mariah Carey without recycling her, she kindly but firmly asks a lover for a night apart. The confessional centerpiece “Ghostin,” all whooshing synths and sad strings, appears to time warp back to her wrenching moment of mourning Miller while trying to stay connected to Davidson. Then there’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” whose story line is right in the title. With Grande acknowledging the ugliness of the home-wrecker impulse, the song does a rare thing in pop: It takes a risk.
Still, nothing jolted me like “Bloodline,” that track informing a fling that he’s just not mating material. Martin’s crew conjures fake dancehall, and while cribbing from the Caribbean is certainly an overplayed move for white pop stars (Grande went reggae-lite back on 2016’s “Side to Side”), there’s somehow still a live energy in the song’s horns and pulsing bass. Thank U, Next is generally icy, but this track is hot, and despite the curt dismissal at its core, it actually doesn’t read as bitter. “No need to apologize,” Grande sings: the kind of truth-telling born of neither hurt nor callousness—both of which she has absolutely earned a right to—but mere freedom.