Ariana Grande hasn’t always been the global superstar and household name she is in 2019, at least not in the ways of mainstream media and radio exposure that most pop icons of the current generation have earned their names in our popular culture. But somewhere between her music debut in 2013—barely out of a Nickelodeon contract with nothing but a largely teen fanbase and an exceptionally sophisticated R&B-pop debut studio album—and the release of her highly anticipated fifth studio album Thank U, Next (just seven months after her fourth, Sweetener), Grande has pulled off a rare evolution as pop princess turned global star and now one of the most visible figures in pop culture.
There’s no question that prior to the release of her highly-buzzed singles “No Tears Left to Cry” and “God is a Woman” last year that Grande was something of a cult favorite among pop music listeners—that is, girls and gays. There’s no denying that the singles from her third album Dangerous Woman (“Dangerous Woman” or “Into You,” for example) didn’t see as much mainstream exposure as the singles from Sweetener. Maybe we can chalk this up to the age-old evolution of a pop singer seeing more and more success as her career grows. Or maybe a lack of musical output from the list of other mainstream pop artists whom contemporary pop radio usually pays attention to (e.g. Rihanna, Selena Gomez, or even Katy Perry). Or maybe it even had something to do with the genuine evolution of Grande’s music as incorporating real-life themes and events into her songs (“No Tears Left to Cry” is associated with helping to put the tragic events of the Manchester bombing at one of her concerts in 2017 behind us, and she even has an entire track on Sweetener dedicated to the victims called “Get Well Soon”). Whatever the case, Grande had progressed to something of a mainstream pop star by 2018 rather than the pop princess with a largely gay following who wasn’t taken as seriously as a mainstream star circa 2014.
There’s also no question that the promotional period for Sweetener was somewhat hijacked by both Grande’s breakup with rapper Mac Miller and her new relationship and subsequent engagement to Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson. As the narrative typically tends to flip for female stars, her romantic relationship was often the subject of more public interest rather than her new musical material. She also suddenly became the scapegoat for Miller’s public relapse into addiction that seemed to arise following their separation—in response to a tweet blaming her for Miller receiving a DUI following their breakup since he was heartbroken, Grande replied, “I am not a babysitter or a mother and no woman should feel that they need to be. I have cared for him and tried to support his sobriety & prayed for his balance for years (and always will of course) but shaming / blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem.” Thereafter, her relationship with Davidson becomes the inevitable subject of media interest, as does their public and loving appearances at mainstream events such as the MTV Video Music Awards. Sweetener was released in August 2018 and received generally positive reviews, and would later receive a nomination for the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Album, marking Grande’s third nomination for the award.
In September, Miller was tragically found dead of a drug overdose at age 26. Just as she had been when Miller had appeared to have relapsed following their split, Grande again becomes somewhat of a scapegoat for his overdose and death on social media—which just goes to prove that internalized misogyny is still alive and well in our culture and media. By October, Grande and Davidson had called off what can only be described as a premature engagement and gone their separate ways, and in November, she released a surprise new single titled “Thank U, Next”—which was propelled to immediate success. The song would become Grande’s first single to debut at number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the United States (and the first by a female artist to debut at the top of the chart since Adele’s “Hello” in 2015), and the song’s popularity would only be boosted by its high-profile, romantic comedy-themed music video featuring appearances by Kris Jenner, Jennifer Coolidge, Troye Sivan, and Jonathan Bennett. Grande, who had initially announced a break from music in October following Miller’s death, quickly flipped the narrative again and announced that she had returned to the studio and was wrapping up work on a new studio album, also titled Thank U, Next and from which the title track would serve as the lead single.
While “Thank U, Next” would have appeared somewhat glib if it had been merely a standalone single and promotional release—a bit of an “extra” way of trying to reclaim her narrative with an apparent diss track—but the song is far from that. As far as lead singles go, and as far as her unnecessary amount of time spent in headlines for things that are not her fault in the least, “Thank U, Next” is a respectful attempt at gratitude for the singer’s failed relationships and what they taught her, as well as a nod to the future and all that’s on the horizon. Indeed, Grande did in fact successfully reclaim her own narrative by setting the record straight with a catchy pop song that achieved as much instant popularity as a comeback single by Adele (I mean, c’mon, that’s certainly an accomplishment). She later released a promotional single from her upcoming fifth studio release, “Imagine,” which displayed her ability to make use of the whistle register in a way we haven’t heard since Mariah in the early ‘90s (she even hit the notes when she performed the track live on The Tonight Show a few days later). 2019 brought us the album’s official second single, “7 Rings,” a trap song that also instantly shot to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 (making Grande the third female artist to have two or more singles debut at number one on the chart, joining Mariah Carey and Britney Spears) and churns up its own stir of controversy. 2 Chainz, Soulja Boy, and Princess Nokia all allege accusations of plagiarism against Grande, and some critics allege instances of cultural appropriation in the song’s music video (she even gets attacked on the Internet once more for a new tattoo with Japanese symbols commemorating the song which appear to be misspelled, in fact reading as the Japanese symbols for a small barbecue grill). She tries to smooth things over by enlisting 2 Chainz for a remix of the song, and attempts to amend her tattoo. And, most recently, Grande is under fire yet again for withdrawing from performing at this weekend’s 61st Grammy Awards and when the ceremony’s producer Ken Ehrlich alleged in an interview that she pulled out because she couldn’t pull something together in time, Grande clapped back on Twitter once again. “I’ve kept my mouth shut but now you’re lying about me,” she writes. “I can pull together a performance over night and you know that, Ken. It was when my creativity & self expression was stifled by you, that I decided not to attend. I hope the show is exactly what you want it to be and more. I offered 3 different songs. It’s about collaboration. It’s about feeling supported. It’s about art and honesty. Not politics. Not doing favors or playing games. It’s just a game y’all… and I’m sorry but that’s not what music is to me.”
While a pop singer releasing two albums less than a year apart is by no means unheard of, seven months between studio albums still feels a bit rushed and stifling (Grande had barely finished promotion for Sweetener’s third single “Breathin” by the time “Thank U, Next” hit the charts). However, in terms of a pop star who has now reached a level of mainstream attention associated with a global superstar who clearly felt a new rush of musical inspiration following a series of personal struggles as well as a need to set the record straight and reclaim her own narrative in an industry and popular culture that devalues women—Thank U, Next gets the job done pretty well. Is it Ariana’s most exciting album? No. Does it reach the same levels of pop excellence as “Into You,” “God is a Woman,” or “Breathin”? Certainly not. But in terms of cohesiveness and production, Thank U, Next is definitely more sonically consistent than Sweetener, and sounds much less experimental in comparison since Grande appears to be flipping the bird to what people and pop music cycles think of her by embracing the kind of R&B-trap music she wants to make right now. If anything, the album is proving to us that Ariana Grande no longer cares what people think—much of the album’s lyrics are quite unsympathetic—and subtly rejects her reputation for unnecessary tabloid drama (“least this song is a smash”). As long as people are going to talk, you might as well join the conversation and get some Billboard Hot 100 toppers while you’re at it. Grande even brings to mind, on a smaller scale, Blackout era Britney Spears on tracks like “Fake Smile,” candidly clapping back at people who feel the need to attack her for no apparent reason just as Britney did on songs like “Piece of Me.” She’s even throwing caution to the wind and having fun with silly, lovesick lyrics on “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” Time can only tell if Thank U, Next will go down as one of if not Grande’s best album, since she appears to be embracing herself as she is and making the music she wants to make, when she wants to make it. She comes across as entirely herself. And for a woman to be fully herself is revolutionary.
Jeffrey’s favorites from Thank U, Next: “Imagine,” “Needy,” “Bloodline,” “Fake Smile,” “Bad Idea,” “Thank U, Next,” and “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”