July 22, 2019

Grande Feat or Fail?

Just six months after the release of her widely-acclaimed album, “Sweetener,” Ariana Grande dropped “Thank U, Next” in early February. Many artists take years or more to perfect new music, so it’s fair to wonder if that quick turnaround would allow “Thank U, Next” to live up to the hype generated by “Sweetener.” I put on my headphones and set out to see for myself.

It begins with “Imagine,” a grandiose track about spending a quality night in with a significant other. Ariana revels in ordering pad thai, sharing secrets, and “bubbles and bubbly.” Sounds like the perfect solution to stress! 

She’s starting the album off on a light and happy note, but don’t expect it to last. A closer look at the chorus reveals the line “Why can’t you imagine a world like that?” Ariana’s not actually lounging around her house in bliss with her partner. Instead, she’s just imagining how nice that would be. She also gets into the Mariah Carey high notes, making this the song I’ll do a disgraceful hack version of in the shower.

“Needy” welcomes you in with a persistent, trance-like beat that might sound chill if only used for background music. Inside the lyrics, Ariana’s candidness about her mental state and her personality made this song an early standout to a lot of listeners. She got me nodding in agreement with the words “I’ma scream and shout for what I love, passionate but I don’t give no fucks. I admit that I’m a lil messed up, but I can hide it when I’m all dressed up. I’m obsessive and I love too hard, good at overthinking with my heart.” 

Then Ariana admits, “I can be needy, way too damn needy,” before taking this stereotypically negative thing for a woman to be and flipping it on its head, asking, “Tell me how good it feels to be needed.” If we’re as honest with ourselves as she is here, we all have needs. Acknowledging and sharing hers seems pretty healthy.

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In a wonderful positioning of tracks that I suspect many people relate to, the song about needing to be close is followed by one about needing space. On “NASA,” Ariana plays with the double meaning of words in a catchy chorus – using both the classic needing “space” in a relationship and the line “You know I’m a star.”

The playfulness makes “NASA” sound kind of simple, but many lyrics contain wisdom, notably: “I can’t really miss you if I’m with you and when I miss you, it’ll change the way I kiss you. Baby, you know time apart is beneficial. It’s like I’m the universe and you’ll be N-A-S-A.” A younger version of me who used to tell her boyfriend she was tired so she could go home and watch the late SportsCenter alone feels very seen.

“Bloodline” is a bop about wanting to keep it casual with someone who is definitely pushing for more. I get strong “turning up with the girls” vibes from this song, but trying to explain to someone the level of intimacy you’re willing to give them can cross the gender spectrum. It’s something I wish people would be more open about! Aside from the undeniable dance-ability of this song, Ariana absolutely wins me over with the line “I know what you looking for, but I’m complete.” PREACH.

“Fake Smile” is not as in-your-face pop as some other tracks so it might not be a widespread favorite, but it’s one of mine. Ariana gets a heavy dose of my sympathy in the second verse when she sings about the awful things people have said about her online and in the media. She says, “I know it’s the life that I chose, but baby, I’m grateful, I want you to know. I’m happy for the love and all of the above. If I’m being honest, I done been through way too much.” I don’t know how anyone familiar with her story – the loss of Mac Miller, the terrorist attack after her show in Manchester, her public relationship with Pete Davidson – couldn’t feel something for this tiny powerhouse singer who’s just trying to be well-adjusted and make good music. I hear her refusal to say she’s fine when she’s not and I support it. Fuck a fake smile, indeed.

The next track, “Bad Idea,” kind of sounds like something that would play in a superhero or heist movie as the protagonists are heading off on a risky adventure. It also features a cinematic-like breakdown at the end. I’m not sure whether Ariana is rebounding with someone new in this song or getting into trouble trying to “numb the pain” with a friend, but haven’t we all been in both places? It’s not one of my favorites on the album, but it has grown on me.

“Make-up sex is bomb, also shout-out to Rihanna for making really great makeup.” That’s pretty much the gist of the song “Make Up.” It is by far my least favorite, but it’s not off-putting enough to make me skip it. There’s just nothing special about it, which is fine. Nearly every album’s got a song like that.

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The very first time I heard “Ghostin” I thought to myself, “I’m going to cry to this song at some point.” Not necessarily about the song, just about something. The harmonies sound like they know when you’ve had one too many glasses of wine, and they’re here to drag all those feelings you didn’t know you repressed out.

The lyrics are transparently about Ariana’s ex, Mac Miller, dying of a drug overdose during her relationship with Pete Davidson. I didn’t anticipate feeling something in the neighborhood of appreciation for Pete, but the lyrics “You been so understanding, you been so good, and I’m putting you through more than one ever should. And I’m hating myself ‘cause you don’t want to admit that it hurts you” actually do that.

“In My Head” is by far my favorite track on the album. Like “Fake Smile,” it doesn’t have the sound of a single, but those lyrics are to-the-bone relatable. “In My Head” is a complete evisceration of an ex, but with just enough accountability that it doesn’t sound like sour grapes. I damn near did a spit-take when she sang “Your Gucci tennis shoes, running from your issues.” 

But the biggest, shout it from the rooftops moment comes at the end: “Wanted you to grow but, boy, you wasn’t budding. Everything you are made you everything you aren’t. I saw your potential without seeing credentials, maybe that’s the issue. Said maybe that’s the issue, can’t hold that shit against you. Guess I did it to myself, yeah. Thought you were somebody else.” If Ariana ever basically said to me, “I thought you were better than that but my bad,” I might never show my face in public again. 

Next is “7 Rings” and this song is for stuntin’. The beat is playfully innocent. Paired with aggressively cocky lyrics, it paints a picture of a woman doing her best “who me?” face, but breaking into a smirk because she knows she’s made your jaw drop. Ariana leaves her vocal runs at home in favor of speak-singing, finding it a better fit for her boasts. My favorite among them is, “I don’t mean to brag, but I be like ‘Put it in the bag,’ yeah.” She absolutely means to brag, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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“Thank U, Next” was released as a single in November 2018 and I included it in my list of my favorite songs of the year. In the interest of keeping this post a reasonable length, my full thoughts are available at the link.

The iconically titled “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” was destined to please the internet. It didn’t launch quite as many memes as “Thank U, Next,” but it got its fair share of attention. The lyrics don’t have much substance beyond the obvious, but it’s a fun track that rounds out the end of the album well.

Overall, “Thank U, Next” starts off on fire, lulls a bit in the middle, and finishes strong. When Ariana sings on “Fake Smile” about not wanting to lie about how she’s doing, she stayed true to that on the album – emotions run the gamut from living your best life (“Make Up,” “7 Rings”) to barely holding it together (“Bad Idea,” “Ghostin”) to owning your needs (“Needy,” “NASA”). The healthy perspective on the title track is threaded throughout the album, offering an honest and fresh mindset for 2019. Judging by the Billboard charts lately, it’s working out pretty well for Ariana.

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Nicole Gustafson 31 Articles
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Nicole was born in Chicago and raised in Des Moines. She took her talents to The Iowa State University, where she earned a degree in journalism. You can find Nicole cheering on her favorite sports teams, hanging out with her dog, or finishing a Netflix marathon. Nicole is a big fan of #pitcherswhorake, fat guy TD's, and carbs. She's not a fan of mornings, winter, or vegetables and will complain to anyone who will listen.

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