Music Reviews

Ariana Grande turns tragedy into damn good pop music on “thank u, next”

Ariana is going through some things and her music is better for it.

If you’ve ever read my other music reviews (I’m talking to all 5 of you) this isn’t an album I’d typically take the time to write about. Or listen to. But the cultural tidal wave it caused after “thank u, next” combined with Pete Davidson and the tragic passing of Mac Miller made it impossible to ignore. The spotlight is the brightest it’s ever been in Ariana’s career, and that’s saying something considering how astronomically famous she is. She’s endured a lot of hardship in a short period of time, and releasing a project in the midst of all of this tragedy is risky. Music is rarely mediocre when dealing with this kind of emotional volatility. It’s either really bad or really good.

Surprisingly (for me at least) this album is really good. I did not expect to like it this much. It’s immaculately produced, deeply personal, and creatively exciting. It’s not perfect, but for a pop star this famous to put something out this bold is impressive. Instead of shying away from her personal issues or being vague, she confronts them head-on. Her insecurities, desires, and faults are on full display here and they’re a helluva lot of fun to listen to. She’s channeled all that tragedy into well-crafted pop songs that are dripping with attitude and emotion.

What these songs lack in depth they make up for with cackling spontaneous energy. There’s a “lightning in a bottle” feeling even though the production is immaculate. She’s incredibly vulnerable yet confident in her vulnerability. It feels like at times we’re reading her diary. She hasn’t edited a thing, just laid it all out there for better or worse without overthinking it.

‘thank u, next” wasn’t just a throwaway single, it was a concept that is woven throughout every song. Ariana is honest and (mostly) unapologetic about who she is and what she’s done. I won’t say any more about that song that hasn’t been said. Also, seeing every Ariana fan spam “THANK U NEXT BITCH” on Twitter has gotten beyond annoying. It’s a massive hit and perfect fusion of catchy pop music and emotional vulnerability. Still, there are several examples on this album where she does it even better. I haven’t heard something this personal and pop-friendly since Usher’s Confessions. I would say Frank Ocean’s Channel ORANGE but that album wasn’t tailored for the pop charts.

“I can’t fake another smile/I can’t fake like I’m alright/I won’t say I’m feeling fine/After what I’ve been through I can’t lie” she sings on the snappy, moody “fake smile”. It’s less a “woe is me” and more of a, “I don’t care anymore” vibe that she cultivated on “thank u, next” and perfects with this song. It also features a soul sample at the beginning that Kanye would be proud of. Easily the best song on the album and one of the best pop songs I’ve heard in some time.

The album opener “imagine” has one of the more impressive vocal performances as she wails on the chorus (“IMAAAAAGINE a world like that”) and is the first of many songs about longing for love lost. It isn’t clear if she’s talking about Pete Davidson or an amalgamation of her past exes, but it’s clear from this song and others that she wants to take the good parts of the relationships and leave all the bad. The lyrics aren’t necessarily well thought out but they’re relatable.

She doesn’t use the “men are evil” crutch that a lot of female pop stars lean on when they release break up records (Taylor Swift). She’s not innocent in her relationships collapsing. On “needy” she admits she can be, well, needy, and also obsessive at first then distant. I really enjoy the dramatic strings and vocal melodies on this track as well as the self-deprecating lyrics. It’s an original take on a familiar formula.

Although my favorite tracks combine serious and catchy, half this album leans more towards the straight-up fun, mindless pop. Like “make up” where she’s more interested in fucking than atoning for her fuck ups. The spacey beeps and boops in the background give the song an ethereal feel that succeeds in matching the confusing but enjoyable feeling of makeup sex.  The infuriatingly catchy “bloodline” has a crisp horn section and a trap beat that will force you to dance. “bad idea” puts an echoing guitar over some driving 808 drums to create a 90s dance floor hit that Haddaway would be proud of. And the way the track fades into the string section toward the end, harmonizing with Ariana’s high vocals is just gorgeous.

The album starts to falter when Ariana dives too deep into the reasons behind her feelings. She’s best when she sticks to gut feeling spontaneity. Deep tracks just don’t feel right when they’re in the midst of the high energy. The one ballad, “ghostin”, tries to be emotional but comes off as flat and confusing. Presumably, it’s about her talking to Mac Miller while she was dating Pete Davidson but it could be about any of her relationships in the past where she can’t let go of the man who came before. It’s confusing because she’s talking about communicating with a guy while being in a relationship and being sorry about it, but continuing to do it and telling her new boyfriend they’ll “get through it”. Just stop talking to the guy? I’ve read the lyrics a few times and just when it starts to make sense it takes another left turn and loses me. Aside from the lyrics, the song is boring, the vocal performances are too subdued and although I’m sure it’s a strong emotional statement it just doesn’t come off that way.

“7 rings” is also an underwhelming track. While the rest of the album is creatively exciting this song seems like a rip off of a bunch of other R&B songs. So much so that Princess Nokia and Soulja Boy (lol) have accused her of ripping off their flows. Even without the plagiarism accusations, the song isn’t very good. It’s uninspired and sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the project. Especially when the entire thing is a brisk 41 minutes long.

Still, 80% of this album blew me away. Not because she’s redefining the genre or doing something crazy experimental, but because the ideas are so bold for an A-list pop star and executed so well. I don’t love all of it, but I respect her commitment to fusing her personal issues into the music to create something that makes us dance and feel things. This is pop music at it’s best, catchy, relatable, emotional, and endlessly replayable.

Final Verdict

7.5/10

Favorite Tracks: fake smile, bloodline, make up, imagine

Least Favorite Tracks: 7 rings, ghostin

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