In December, Ariana Grande gave an insightful interview in the aftermath of a series of tragedies: the 2017 terrorist attack outside her in Manchester, England; her brief engagement to “SNL” star Pete Davidson, to whom she dedicated a standout track on last year’s “Sweetener” album; and the death of former boyfriend Mac Miller, who put an exclamation point on her breakout hit, “The Way.” “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to f—ing talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do,’” she said. “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.”
It was an indictment of the album-release model that labels so deliberately lean upon, one that was forged in the mid-‘60s and continues, to a degree, to this day. The marketing formula was simple: tease a single, work it to radio, fever dream a surreal video and chase it with an album release, preferably on a pricey CD. The thought behind it was admittedly immense, as was the targeting—radio first, MTV second, Sam Goody third, sometimes not in that order, with promotional caveats dotted along the way. The tactic worked until it didn’t; as file-sharing grew, CD sales declined, as did the reliance on traditional marketing tools. Hip-hop largely skewered the method by offering music for free, as a brand-builder, through the mixtape economy. And as quickly as it grew, legal handcuffs tightened for abuse of sampling, as did the notion of the album itself, and how artists put out music. Mixtapes afforded a freedom to create at will, without confines, and namely outside of label purview. It was one of the few instances on such a grand economic scale that artists held the creative reins, so unabashedly, at the expense of not directly profiting monetarily.
Though the mixtape economy sank, the idea of consistently feeding fans persisted. Artists got smarter about sampling, and the distinction between a mixtape and an album ultimately eroded. But the mentality of that work ethic, and the public’s demand for more, endured. Today, fans want more—more music, more social posts, more access. Rihanna may have set the example of giving where needed, releasing seven albums over eight years while consistently testing the pliability of her artistry. It’s hard to ignore someone who’s so reliably good, when they’re doing it so often, and teetering on the razor blade. It’s the stuff that legends are made of, and Rihanna is certainly one of them.
Today, that mentality is still a bedrock of hip-hop, where artists often brag about creating massive hits in the runoff of a 20-minute session. The ephemeral nature of creation is something that pop artists generally aren’t afforded. There’s a blueprint for them: get with the big-name producer, meticulously craft a surgically stitched anthem, stack up as many as you can, then thread it through an album that has a five-month marketing schedule beginning with a social media wipe that elicits entire articles speculating on if new music is coming. It’s especially harder for women, who are so often restricted from truly expressing themselves so they don’t rattle the foundation built upon toxic masculinity.
And it makes sense that Grande would, as a flowering anti-pop pop star, react. Her excellent but perhaps too-much-too-soon album “Sweetener,” released just six months ago, scrambled expectations. It didn’t come so much as a surprise as it did a reassurance: that she didn’t conform to expectation, and didn’t need the pop banger produced by Zedd to make a statement. “Sweetener” was an exercise in subtlety and restraint. After all, why should she have to do what’s expected? Why exactly does she have to prove anything?
But that’s unfortunately become Grande’s beckoning: experiencing trauma in public, processing it in private, and then translating it back to the public. “Thank U, Next” is the direct result of existing in the public eye through such hardship, and a reaction to the demand that existing elicits. Most artists would hide; Grande did the opposite.
“Thank U, Next” is an extension of “Sweetener,” her riskiest album, which left many allegiants confused over why she did such a stylistic heel-turn. But it’s in line with the mode of thinking that nothing is a given, and it’s subsequently her most culturally relevant release to date. Grande would be one to know.
At a critical stance, “Thank U, Next” is a lip-smacking dish. Grande teamed with go-to producers and writers including Max Martin, Ilya, Pop & Oak, Tommy Brown, Victoria Monet and a coterie of others featured in the flash of her Instagram stories. It doesn’t feel rushed, especially given the six-month gap from “Sweetener,” each track idealized and given a chef’s fingertip kiss. She’s as vocally demure as she was on “Sweetener,” to great effect: her voice sounds vibrant and prominent, without the flash, nothing to prove but with all the flair. The choices made are divergent but satiating, from the calming pull of strings on “Bad Idea” to the deficiency of percussion on the woozy hug “Ghostin.”
But ultimately, “Thank U, Next” is a portrait of an artist who appears to have it all together, at least publicly, but is as misguided as the rest of us. At a turn, she’s apologizing for her dependency issues on crown jewel “Needy,” and then moments later demanding space on the loner’s anthem “NASA.” (She genially strings a metaphor for space travel across a song littered with puns on space exploration.) Soon, she’s atmospherically doubting her ability to adequately read a love interest on “In My Head,” then sharing thoughts of being “practically on my knees” over the thirst she feels for a man on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” And she’s said that “Ghostin'” is about both Miller and Davidson, and many of the lyrics could be about either of them. It’s messy, self-contradictory and you can tell she’s lying to herself. Most of all, she’s as real as she’s ever been.
The inherent problem of being prolific as a musician on such an elevated platform is that expedited growth is generally met with rebuff, on disbelief that proficiency can yield something actually good and realized. The alignment of songs throughout “Thank U, Next” is disjointed, and will likely repel discerning listeners who have come to expect hit after hit. Grande has quickly developed into an artist who’s internalized the need to satiate her audience as often as possible, but in effect, it hasn’t dimmed her abilities to push herself more creatively. It’s something that her peers haven’t reconciled: creating in the public eye, and creating as freely and honestly as you can, without abandoning the fundamentals of the pop hallmarks that define the artist you’ve become. It’s why Grande has only continued to blossom into one of pop’s most compelling artists, and why “Thank U, Next” stands as what promises to be one of the best pop releases this year.