Ariana Grande has had a rough few years, starting with the tragic 2017 Manchester Arena bombing after her concert there and concluding with the dissolution of her engagement to actor Pete Davidson in October of last year. In between, Grande also split from her long-term boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, who passed away from an accidental overdose several months after their breakup. No one would’ve blamed her if she decided to lay low to recuperate from these traumas.
However, the actor-turned-pop star instead looked inward and channeled trauma into creativity. In August 2018, she released the warmly received Sweetener, which just won a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album. (Incidentally, the honor came days after Grande slammed the awards show’s producer, Ken Ehrlich, for allegedly mischaracterizing why she pulled out of the event.) Fewer than six months later, she’s returned with another new album, Thank U, Next, which is itself a leap forward in the way it reshapes her R&B-inflected pop into something sleeker and more adventurous.
Grande and her team of collaborators take familiar source material—hissing trap beats, ’90s hip-hop and R&B, dusky electro production—and assemble it into songs that defy boundaries. The harmony-heavy “NASA” is both a soulful slow jam and a throwback to the heyday of ’90s R&B girl groups; no-nonsense horns underline the reggae-tinged “Bloodline”; and an insistent guitar line somersaults through “Bad Idea” before the song introduces a cinematic orchestral surge. Grande’s lively vocal melodies on Thank U, Next are another strong point, particularly in the way they strike a balance between whimsy and a more serious tone. She veers between trills and rhythmic spoken word on “Fake Smile,” and transforms into a soaring torch-pop ingenue on opening track “Imagine.”
But these daring strokes shouldn’t be a surprise. When a fan recently asked Grande if there was a link between an old and new song, she told them point-blank, “No repeats or 2.0s remember?” which has been a sonic mantra since her 2013 debut, Yours Truly. More than that, however, Thank U, Next is well-crafted without feeling fussed-over—a testament to her bolder mindset. “I guess there’s not much I’m afraid of anymore,” she told Billboard in December 2018. “When life tries you with such serious shit so many times, your priorities change. I don’t give a shit. I just want to be happy and healthy—one day—and make music.”
This no-fucks-given attitude permeates Thank U, Next’s hit title track, which name-checks Grande’s actual exes while espousing the virtues of being like Marie Kondo with romantic clutter: Express gratitude for past loves and then move right on without looking back. However, Thank U, Next’s lyrics are anything but careless. In fact, one of the album’s overarching themes is the importance of self-preservation. “NASA” asks for personal space in a relationship, while “Bloodline” is about being into someone for the moment, not the long haul, and “Fake Smile” is about refusing to put on a brave face when confronted by bad times. The emotional specificity creates resonant immediacy and vulnerability—such as her admission of flaws and imperfections on “Needy”: “Sorry that I think I’m not enough / And sorry if I say sorry way too much.”
Grande has always been refreshingly open about her musical inspiration when asked by fans. But no matter how many tweet-crumbs about her life and musical direction she posts, she has mastered the art of being an open book while maintaining some semblance of privacy. And so Thank U, Next skillfully toys with the tension between universal sentiments and deeply personal confessions. For example, it’s easy to read between the lines and extrapolate potential real-life inspiration for the delicate, string-swept “Ghostin,” where the narrator expresses guilt about hurting a current partner by still being hung up on an ex. Yet the song’s lyrics aren’t explicitly tied to Grande’s own situation; there’re just surrounded by very strong hints, such as samples of her late ex, Miller.
All of this praise isn’t meant to disparage Sweetener, which hit all the right notes for a modern pop album: notable collaborations (Pharrell Williams, Nicki Minaj, Missy Elliott), empowering feminist statements (“God Is A Woman”), and deeply felt confessions (“No Tears Left To Cry”). But when compared to the depth of Thank U, Next, Sweetener feels like it’s merely skimming the emotional surface. That Grande moved on so quickly to the Thank U, Next era is also a sign that she’s far more invested in her newer music and direction. That’s certainly not a bad thing: With this new album and a looming Coachella headlining slot, Grande is clearly in the imperial phase of her recording career. The only question now is how much bigger her career is going to get.