In 2016, Ariana Grande manifested herself a future scandal. It was the premise of her self-aware monologue as a first-time host on “SNL,” but the gag was cutting. “I think I’m in a place where I’m ready to be caught in a real adult scandal, something to take my career to the next level,” she said. By that point, three years into her chart-topping musical career, her only offense of note had been licking a bunch of donuts. Grande continued, over a bed of lounge piano: “Miley’s had ’em, Bieber’s had ’em, everyone’s had ’em, and each day, I sit by my window and I dream, ‘What will my scandal be?’” She was joking, but not really. A couple of years earlier she’d suggested as much in a New York Times interview: “Maybe one day I’ll get away with something naughty.”
Of course, Grande couldn’t possibly have known back then what exactly was in store for her, how difficult and cruel the world would prove to be. After confronting the aftermath of a deadly attack on the Manchester stop of her 2017 Dangerous Woman tour, she retreated, reemerging a year later with new resolve. The story of her personal 2018 is a little too familiar now: She broke up with Mac Miller, quickly and very publicly became engaged to Pete Davidson, and then called that relationship off while grieving Miller’s death. In the midst of it all was Sweetener, a potent album that soundtracked her newfound role as pop’s most lovable personality. With Rihanna focused on makeup and lingerie, Beyoncé preoccupied as the better half of the Carters, and Taylor unwilling to share anything beyond an entry-level grasp of politics, Grande ascended.
In retrospect, Sweetener was a bridge, a necessary post-tragedy assertion of survival and strength. In contrast, thank u, next, released just five months later, feels like the deliverance following Sweetener‘s catharsis. When she put out the title track as a single last fall, it felt like something had finally clicked. She’d not only survived a real adult scandal, but she’d also cracked it, and herself, wide open. She was untouchable. That seems to be the ethos of thank u, next, which stands out in sublime contrast to her previous releases. There are no wonky guest features or unconvincing, if always technically adept, ballads, as on past albums; she no longer ne those distractions. But as usual, it’s Grande’s voice—gently whistling here, totally annihilating there, always undeniable—that carries the album.
The release of “7 rings” as a single last month brought scandal anew. She was immediately accused of both theft and appropriation, and an unfortunate misspelled tattoo punctuated the episode. And while she kinda-sorta engineered her own absolution in the form of a 2 Chainz remix, Grande’s collaborators on the song—Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx—are also her longtime friends and co-writers, not simply anonymous voices hired because black slang and Atlanta rap rhythms are trendy. In general, thank u, next is a calling card for Monét and Parx, both signed artists with forthcoming projects of their own, who have helped Grande capture the zeitgeist in clever lines and melodies. (Almost too perfectly, “thank u, next” producer Tommy Brown is co-writer Monét’s ex.) But “7 rings,” frankly, is just as good as any track on the last album or this one. I suspect it was actually the jarring shift in her tone that left people confused and disarmed; It seemed she’d ditched the inspiring moral high ground, luxuriating instead in Tiffany’s jewelry and pink Veuve Clicquot.
Though thank u, next’s 12 songs are inspired by romantic and sexual relationships, taken together, they are actually assertions and affirmations of self, a reflection of millennial group chats the world over. “needy” is a therapist’s dream: “You can go ahead and call me selfish/But after all this damage, I can’t help it.” The extended space-metaphor of “NASA” is The-Dream-lite by way of Kacey Musgraves, executed in good faith. Soul singer Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” most famously sampled by Wu-Tang on the heartbreaking “Tearz,” is cleverly repurposed into “fake smile,” possibly thank u, next’s most compelling song and the thesis of this current era in Grande’s life. “I can’t fake another smile/I can’t fake like I’m alright/And I won’t say I’m feeling fine/After what I been through, I can’t lie,” she sings in reclamation.
There are more high points throughout—the soaring hook on the Max Martin classic “bad idea,” the slinky emotional honesty of “ghostin,” the delightful Beyoncé facsimile “make up”—but it’s still the album’s existence at all that thrills. The gentle familiarity of Grande’s musical references makes for effortlessly digestible, of-the-moment pop songs, but they’re elevated by a palpable despair that sits just below the surface. Beyond her four-octave soprano and robust wielding of it, thank u, next is buoyed by an urgency that could only come from the depths of her self-described “damage.” That it comes so soon after an already-spectacularly received album only swells the effect.
Grande explained in a recent Billboard interview that her motivation is “to release music like rappers do”—without the burden or unwieldiness of the major label machine, but certainly with much of its power. For all its spontaneity, thank u, next still registers as a big event. She has bragged that the album was written in a week and recorded in a couple more, and while that expediency gives it its weightlessness, it also accounts for the occasional notes of sloppy writing; I can’t get past, for example, the premise of “bloodline,” which seems to confuse genealogy with hypothetical procreation. But in the rare spots where the production is grating and the writing limp, Grande makes up for it with skill and intuition. thank u, next may be an imperfect album but it’s a perfect next chapter.