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Ariana Grande finds her stride on shaky ground

| Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Cristina Interiano | The Observer

In a time (post-“Despacito,” or P.D.) when hip-hop, rap and latin trap dominate streaming services, Ariana Grande has been the only capitol-P pop star to truly make a splash. Last August, Grande released “Sweetener,” an outward, pure-pop commentary on how she dealt with the past year of her life — a year plagued with difficult relationships and international tragedy. Less than six months later, she releases “thank u, next,” an introspective album that responds to everything that’s happened since: her apotheosis to pop stardom, the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and her very public break up with SNL-star Pete Davidson. “Thank u, next” is a more mature “Sweetener,” and it shows that Grande has come to terms with the lessons that tragedy (both public and personal) has taught her.

On “Sweetener,” Grande tried to rely less heavily on her technically gifted voice and prove that it was no longer her only weapon. “Thank u, next” continues the trend, and features Grande’s most tasteful vocal runs yet. The album’s opening track, “imagine,” links belty hooks with choppy verses on which she wistfully sings in staccato: “stayin’ up all night, order me pad thai / then we gon’ sleep ‘til noon.” On “7 rings,”  Grande sings as a powerful woman facing her detractors: “been through some bad s—, I should be a sad b—- / who woulda thought it’d turn me to a savage?”

The multifaceted personality of “thank u, next” almost makes up for its lack of sonic dexterity. The album’s tracks have an ethereal tone (similar to “Sweetener”) but lack Pharrell William’s production value — maybe because the album was made in two weeks (as Grande’s longtime co-writer Victoria Monét claims). Good songs first, production second.

In an extensive interview with Zach Sang, Grande revealed how difficult the album was to make. The song “ghostin,” she told Slang, is about how she had to deal with Mac Miller’s passing. Its lyrics — “he just comes to visit me / when I’m dreaming every now and then” — beg for consolation that may never come. Grande also talked about how her engagement and subsequent breakup with Pete Davidson influenced her music. For Grande, writing “thank, u next” was practice in catharsis that helped her process relationships.  

It’s important to note that the album’s title track, “thank u, next,” is also its best song. Released at the beginning of November, the track’s first verse addresses Grande’s exes (Sean, Ricky, Pete and Malcolm “Mac” Miller), citing them as teachers of “love, patience, pain,” before voicing Grande’s self-assurance in the second.

This self assurance is at the epicenter of the new Ariana Grande aesthetic. Since releasing the single, “Dangerous Woman,” Grande has demonstrated more control over her artistic representation. Five days ago, she denounced Grammy Awards producer Ken Ehrlich for telling The Associated Press that the singer could not perform because it was “too late to pull something together.” In a string of tweets, Grande criticized Ehrlich for stifling her “creativity and self-expression” and causing her to pull out of the ceremony. On Sunday, when Grande won her first Grammy, she was not present to receive it. In popular culture today, artists have the ability to cultivate their own image. Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” exemplifies this autonomy.

  • Artist: Ariana Grande
  • Album: “thank u, next”
  • Label: Republic Records
  • Favorite Tracks: “thank u, next,” “NASA,” “ghostin”
  • If You Like: Rihanna, Zayn, Solange
  • Shamrocks: 3.5 out of 5

 

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