Girl meets boy ― perhaps at a taping of a certain late-night sketch comedy show ― and the two fall in love. They ride off together into a millennial pink-tinted sunset leaving behind a trail of partially sucked lollipops, oversized sweatshirts and broken hearts. Roll the credits, yuh.
When we last heard from Ariana Grande on the vibe-heavy “Sweetener,” she was well on her way to her own happily ever after, having bounced back emotionally and sonically from the 2017 bombing at her Manchester concert by embracing a world turned upside down. The pint-sized pop star, however, was in for a few more turns on life’s spin cycle (speed: unrelenting), as she ended her much-publicized engagement to “Saturday Night Live” star Pete Davidson weeks after ex-boyfriend and rapper Mac Miller died of a fatal overdose.
The arrival of her fifth studio album “thank u, next” on Friday, which dropped a mere six months after “Sweetener,” finds Grande in a spot likely she nor her fans could’ve anticipated: liberated from both romantic and musical attachments.
Journeying through the 12-track LP is the pop music equivalent of watching your favorite rom-com heroine self-actualize in real time. Here, Grande is reveling in a newfound independence not typically afforded to the Katherine Heigels, Kate Hudsons and the genre’s other cinematic queens, whom the singer inhabits in the titular track’s record-smashing music video, and the album is all the better for it.
If “Sweetener,” as Grande has described, was a “dreamier” and “mature” experiment away from the expected bangers, its followup more deftly sticks the landing. “Thank u, next” successfully reconciles her pop music roots with her more recent and ― depending on who you ask ― controversial R&B leanings. Stans can argue which entry is better, but the two albums are actually in conversation with each other, echoing questions and answers big and small about love, sex, loss and material wealth.
The opening track “Imagine,” which hews closer to her previous album in sound and substance, serves as a bridge between the two works, in which Grande puts forth a vision of a love story as beautiful as it is unattainable.
Once that image of a forever-kind of love is shattered ― many have inferred that “Imagine” is inspired by Miller ― the real work begins. She places her own behavior under the microscope on “needy” and “NASA,” renouncing the tired idea that the singer’s well-known exes are the villains of her story. Grande isn’t afraid to implicate herself while unpacking why past relationships have failed.
“I admit that I’m a lil’ messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up,” she sings on the second track. “I’m obsessive and I love too hard / Good at overthinking with my heart.”
If “Sweetener” suffered from the dueling creative visions of producers Pharrell and Max Martin, Grande seamlessly tone-switches here, jumping from introspective bops to turn-up anthems. As pop-rock foremother Liz Phair once sang, “the best part of breaking up is finding someone else you can’t get enough of,” and Grande isn’t afraid to press pause on the heavy emotions and have a little fun as a newly single woman along the way.
Dance-floor-primed songs like “bloodline,” “bad idea” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” show off the singer’s sexier side and are sure to quiet fans who’ve yearned for the breezy, belt-laden bops of past eras. Grande, who’s pledged to remain boyfriend-less for the time being, makes her intentions clear regarding her romantic future (“Ain’t lookin’ for my one true love / Yeah, that ship sailed away”), as she boasts about the pleasures of short-lived flings.
And yet, even the most frivolous tracks are underpinned by whispers of grief, which come to a crescendo in late-in-album entries “ghostin” and “in my head.” Grande might’ve brazenly named her exes on previous tracks, but she doesn’t delve into the specifics here. Anyone familiar with her romantic history, however, will assume “ghostin” explores how Miller’s death heavily factored into her breakup with Davidson. Produced by Martin, Victoria Monét & ILYA, the gorgeous, synth-heavy ballad is easily an album standout due to how it so accurately captures the messy parts of mourning a loved one. Grande applauds her partner’s strength, but she can’t keep her unfinished business with a late lover from bubbling to the surface.
“I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again over him,” she croons.
And herein lies Grande’s essential appeal for those still confused by her admittedly at times overenthusiastic fanbase. Putting her undisputed vocal talents aside, the singer has rendered herself perhaps the most relatable figure in popular culture for being unabashedly herself in good times and bad. While other artists might be more cryptic about their inner turmoil, Grande has consistently laid herself bare ― be it her feelings about a Grammys performance or battle with anxiety ― inviting her fans on the journey every step of the way.
The album’s very existence is a testament to this no BS kind of messaging. It’s practically unheard of for a pop star of Grande’s stature to rebuke the standards of a typical album release and deliver “thank u, next” in this truncated timeframe. And why would an artist whose fan base has been fed and then some put out another record so quickly? To continue the conversation. “I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,” Grande said in a recent interview. “Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.”
Her latest effort is a declaration of independence of the highest order, signaling to her fans and the industry that she is force to be respected.
At just 25 years old, Grande has endured some real-life shit. By weaving these struggles into a tapestry of resilience in all its forms, she’s made an indelible imprint on what it means to be an artist today. She is brave. She is a work in progress. She is still here. Nothing can tear her down even when she feels torn down.
Grande might prefer to say “thank, u next,” but we’ll just keep it at thank you.