I thoroughly enjoyed Ariana Grande’s last album, Sweetener. With a majority of the production handled by Pharrell, the project had an eccentric and colourful atmosphere, and was far more interesting than your standard pop album. And it didn’t just sound great; considering the context of the release (her first album released after a terrorist attack at her Manchester concert which left 27 people dead), the lyrics and song topics displayed surprising strength and positivity. The release also took place only a few months after her breakup with rapper Mac Miller, her boyfriend of two years, over concerns with his worsening substance abuse problems. Considering the turmoil of the preceding year, the emotional tone of Sweetener was celebratory and inspiring; even the songs about her pain were made optimistic and hopeful.
Not only did Sweetener contain songs demonstrating a mature and healthy approach to dealing with the trauma of the past year, it also featured a handful of incredibly gorgeous and heartfelt love songs dedicated to her new fiancé, Pete Davidson. Her infatuation was clear in a number of tracks (including one named after him), and the potent mix of lovely production and moments of lyrical tenderness (take “my whole life got me ready for you” or “I’m tryna turn two single people into a couple”) combined to create a euphoric atmosphere that showed that, after a painful year, everything was promising to work out.
Tragically, shortly after the release, things fell apart. A month later, Mac Miller died of a drug overdose - only four months after their breakup. Another month later, Ariana’s engagement was over.
One might have predicted that there would be a long wait before new music was released. Nobody could have guessed that, only a month after the end of her engagement, Ariana would release a song showcasing a staggering amount of strength and maturity.
It really can’t be overstated how incredibly positive and decorous that song, ‘thank u, next’, really is. In the track, she names her previous partners, thanking them individually for making her who she is now. Going as far as to directly name Pete and Mac in the opening lines is both brave and sad, showcasing impressive emotional maturity and warmth of spirit. The song took over the radio, and I would argue that a significant part of the success was due to the genre-defying sincerity, honesty and emotional intelligence of the song. Many pop songs are reductive, cynically produced for mass-appeal; here is a song that sounds more like emotional healing, showcasing bravery and soul-bearing rarely heard in the Top 40.
After this, the album was announced, surprising considering how recently Sweetener was released. And it’s even more surprising that, considering the short time-span between releases and the undeniable trauma of the past six months, Ariana has released an album that is so good. It understandably feels more emotionally vulnerable than Sweetener, with more songs showcasing clear heartbreak and pain. And unlike Sweetener, where new love provided the antidote to pain, here the turmoil is ridden out alone. Without distraction and infatuation providing relief, Ariana finds comfort in herself, from within rather than without. And it is this self-reliance that makes the album even more inspiring.
Unlike Sweetener, where Pharrell’s (undeniably fun) production clashed with the few songs produced by other artists, creating a disjointed and confused overall sound, the production here is consistent, and coheres to paint the picture of a person going through the rises and falls in emotion essential for healing. There are moments of extreme sadness, followed by a gradual build in strength and confidence, and then again followed by a crash in spirits. It feels realistic and cathartic, as if this accurately reflects the emotional journey Ariana has been through.
Where Sweetener featured a small handful of unnecessary songs, and some which were great but self-contained, with topics that didn’t contribute to an overall narrative, thank u, next contains no filler, and every song feeds into the story of a person navigating through trauma. In addition to consistent production and lyrical content, this is also the first album where Ariana is the only featured vocalist, again contributing to a cohesive and consistent sound.
In addition to containing no unnecessary tracks, there are a number of fantastic ones. ‘imagine’ is a gorgeous and wistful album opener, ‘fake smile’ has jaw dropping bridges and choruses, ‘ghostin’ is the heart-breaking emotional nadir of the album, ‘in my head’ is somehow both crushingly sad and hopeful. And that’s not even mentioning the excellent singles released to promote the album; the inescapable title track, ‘7 rings’ and ‘break up with your boyfriend’ are all great, with the latter providing a light-hearted end to the album. The only song I personally think falters is ‘bloodline’, and even so my main issue is with the cheap-sounding horns; other than that it’s another great song that contributes to the narrative of the album, and would be missed if deleted.
Sweetener was a great album with a number of fantastic songs but a slightly confused message and sound. thank u, next takes death and heartbreak and creates art, an album chronicling emotional turmoil and ascension from despair to a place of stoicism and sanity, in a similar vein to Beyoncé’s excellent Lemonade. Ariana takes extreme pain and transfigures it into something beautiful, complex and worthwhile.