Six months ago, upon the release of her fourth studio album, “Sweetener,” Ariana Grande was flying high on new fame and new love. In “Sweetener,” listeners thought that Grande had finally found her voice. She was floating above her anxieties. Then, things in her personal life went sour, to say the least.
“thank u, next,” the follow-up to “Sweetener,” is a 12-track tour through the singer’s inner life in the aftermath of two very public losses: the death of Grande’s ex-boyfriend, Mac Miller, in September; and her subsequent breakup with fiancee Pete Davidson. While “Sweetener” was praised for its floaty, cloud-nine sound, Grande’s latest album is the complete opposite: Whereas before, she soared above the source of her tragedy, now she finds herself exploring the depths of grief, guilt and disillusionment. The result is an album much darker than its predecessor, but richer in both its content and its delivery. Throughout the 12 tracks, Grande takes us through the events of the past year from her perspective — albeit not always in order — and in the process, manages to deconstruct the persona of relentless optimism which she built for herself just months ago. From now on, she says, there will be no more “fake smiles.”
The album begins with its most blissful track, a ¾ ballad — rumored to be about Miller — in which Grande dreams of a world where she and her significant other could be together, away from the paparazzi and internet critics. “Why can’t you imagine a world like that?” she sings, a line made even more heartbreaking by the possibility that it could be addressed to a departed loved one. The track closes with Grande’s signature whistle tones, a possible nod to her performance of the same vocal feat on 2013’s “The Way,” alongside Mac Miller.
The climax of the record comes with “ghostin,” a haunting ballad about Grande’s experience mourning Mac Miller while still in love with another man. In an interview with Zach Sang last week, when asked about the meaning of the song, Grande was quiet. She said that due to its emotional nature, she hasn’t listened to the song since recording it. Indeed, at times, it feels like we’re listening to something that Grande herself doesn’t want to hear. In the album’s most explicit reference to Miller, Grande sings: “He just comes to visit me / When I’m dreaming every now and then.”
Even “7 rings” is heartbreaking, despite its trap beat and icy delivery. Grande raps in a low monotone, a departure from the bubbly cadence she’s previously employed on tracks like “Sweetener”’s “R.E.M.” At first listen, “7 rings” could easily be mistaken for a female empowerment anthem, or perhaps an edgier “Material Girl,” but in reality, it is neither. In the context of the rest of the album, “7 rings” is revealed to be just another one of Grande’s unhealthy coping mechanisms. It’s catchy, sure, but under the surface lies a deep sense of loneliness — one can almost imagine Grande singing the song as she is still wiping tears from her eyes. It is the first of many moments on “thank u, next” that is charged with a tragic sense of irony — Grande has learned that she cannot, in fact, get everything she wants, that the universe can be cruel, and so she relishes those things which she can control, in this case in the form of money: “I see it, I like it, I want it, I got it.”
But that’s not what she really wants, as she said at the December Billboard Women in Music awards. “I look forward to hopefully learning to give myself some of the love and forgiveness that I’ve given away so frivolously and easily to men in the past, to myself,” Grande said.
Despite its darkness, Grande achieves exactly that with this album. Over the course of 12 tracks, she gives herself permission not only to be vulnerable, but also to be unlikeable. She does not shy away from sharing the parts of herself that could provoke criticism, instead allowing herself to be and feel whatever is true at the moment, whether that’s needy, candid, guarded, indulgent, impulsive or downright bitchy. It’s a level of honesty that puts other artists’ attempts at being “inspirational” and “raw” to shame. Here, Grande proves that authenticity does not come in the form of an acoustic guitar or a makeupless photoshoot; rather, it comes from saying what one actually feels, even if the story is inconsistent and fluctuating at times.
Far from the uplifting body of work that audiences expected, “thank u, next” is “Sweetener” on night mode. And it’s in the darkness that we finally see Grande as she is.
Sarah Marsland | firstname.lastname@example.org .