thank u, next: Ariana Grande playfully, painfully exposed

In years to come, Ariana Grande will be seen as one of the defining pop stars of this decade. Blessed with a vocal range and self-assurance beyond her years, free from the alternative, theater-kid pretensions of her contemporaries like Sia and Halsey, Grande has ably evolved from emulating ‘90s R&B, through urban radio flirtations, to her own style of spry, uncommonly astute adult pop. Her fifth studio album, thank u, next, comes less than six months after her fourth, last year’s Sweetener, and was quickly heralded atop the Billboard Hot 100.

Both albums respond to tragedies that preceded their releases. On May 22, 2017, 23 people were killed and 139 injured — more than half of whom were children — by a suicide bomber while leaving a concert by Grande. On September 7, 2018, Mac Miller –– Pittsburgh rapper, collaborator on her breakout single The Way, and two-year partner from 2016 –– died of an accidental drug overdose. This period was also marked a public and volatile relationship with Pete Davidson, to whom Grande was engaged before one album, and broken up with before the next.

All of this reveals a lot about Grande’s process. Her pop stardom, galvanized by the events in question, is defined by constant connectivity and disclosure to her public. Grande has responded by making her music something lighter, sharper, and newly emboldened. It is the best music of her still-young career. Her public persona is acknowledged and developed throughout thank u, next’s 41 minutes. While fellow stars like Taylor Swift have appeared self-conscious while attempting to play with their public image in recent releases, Grande crafts a persona that she is actually comfortable with. She comes off as expressive, vulnerable, and above all assured. It helps that underneath it all she’s rather likable –– her biggest scandal is getting caught by TMZ licking some donuts and saying, “I hate America.”

On “ghostin,” the album’s best song, she addresses her struggle with Miller’s death throughout her engagement with Davidson and thanks Davidson for giving her the space to find her own way to process her loss. Yet the line “We’ll get through this / We’ll get past this / I’m a girl with / A whole lot of baggage / But I love you / We’ll get past this” becomes melancholic in the face of the knowledge that she and Davidson never did in fact “get past this.”

On “needy,” another highlight of the album, the line “I’ma scream and shout for what I love / Passionate, but I don’t give no fuck / I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up” expresses Grande’s openness about her personality. It makes the playful confidence that she manages throughout the album feel more significant.

thank u, next’s only significant misstep is the song “7 Rings.” It is the current number-one song in the country but it sounds like what would happen if Regina George of Mean Girls recorded an accomplished rap song. Its proclamation that “Whoever said money can’t solve your problems / Must not have had enough money to solve ‘em” not only denies Grande’s emotional reality that the rest of the album conveys, but also raises some larger questions about cultural appropriation.

“7 Rings,” aside, Grade has managed in thank u, next to take her persona — and the public and private experiences that define it — and produce authentic pop.

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