Ariana Grande Is Living A Public Life. The Real Reveals Are In Her Music.
No current pop star is more adept at stoking and channeling swells of online fan curiosity than Ariana Grande. In the past year, she navigated a tumultuous relationship with the comedian Pete Davidson; the death of an ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller; a public row with the Grammys; and more. In the process, she has become a master of the Easter egg, the clapback, the strategic tweet-and-delete. In the middle of a storm, Grande is cool and collected, hands firmly on the wheel.
This comes through in her use of social media, and also in her music and videos. “Sweetener,” an optimistic love-song album released last August, was hot on the heels of her high-octane short-duration romance with Davidson. And the singles leading up to her new album, “Thank U, Next,” aggressively fed the gossip machine, ensuring that just as Grande’s music was reaching its peak popularity, she was also the subject of continuous meta-musical conversation.
It is savvy gamesmanship, and an appropriately modern approach to pop superstardom in the age of social media and streaming. And yet that flirtation with tabloid ubiquity is the least interesting aspect of “Thank U, Next,” Grande’s fifth album, which has some hiccups but is still her most musically flexible and au courant release to date.
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A pure vocal talent who early in her career excelled with songs that gave her singing generous room to breathe, Grande hasn’t always been in close dialogue with the rest of pop music.
That has changed now. “Thank U, Next” was reportedly made in around two weeks, and it shows, but in the right ways — there is less deadening polish on the vocal production, and Grande demonstrates a new comfort toying with style and approach.
That’s clearest on the album standout, “Bloodline,” which communicates a cruel sentiment — “don’t want you in my bloodline” — with disarming casualness. Produced by the pop hitmaker Max Martin, “Bloodline” has rocksteady breeze, electro sternness and some of Grande’s most in-the-pocket singing.
“Thank U, Next” can be split between the songs produced by Martin, both alone and with his regular collaborator Ilya Salmanzadeh, and the rest. The Martin songs are crisp, as always: “Bad Idea” has the urgency and cool of late 1980s pop. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” — which includes a riff on ‘N Sync’s most snide anthem, “It Makes Me Ill” — is so bulbous and tart that it sounds jolly. (The other Martin contribution, “Ghostin,” is the album’s only real dud.)
It’s in the other songs, however, that Grande takes her most intriguing leaps, largely because of the new fluidity she brings to her singing.
As the pop music landscape has shifted to take in the dominance of streaming, it was inevitable that R&B, and also older-fashioned pop, would find their way toward hip-hop. And not in a platitudinous, quick-handshake-while-pinching-your-nose way, but a serious integration — the rhythmic and attitudinal choices that have long been central to hip-hop are becoming essential to artists far outside the genre.
And so it has gone for Grande, who has learned to contort her huge voice into the clipped cadences that have defined the hip-hop mainstream over the last couple of years. On “7 Rings,” she’s so convincing with her flow that there was wild disagreement online as to which rapper she was ripping off. (2 Chainz, most likely, but maybe Soulja Boy.) “Fake Smile” takes a different approach to the same idea, opening with the same melancholy soul sample used in the Wu-Tang Clan’s “Tearz”; its rough-hewed urgency is threaded throughout the rest of the song.
There are other curious musical choices, as well — the jubilation and saccharine taste of the hook of “NASA” recalls K-pop. And Grande hasn’t totally disconnected from the clarity and spaciousness of her early music, heard here on the pristine “Make Up,” which sounds naïve from a distance but roars with mature desire.
That these varying choices all sound comfortable together is the real sign of progress on this album. Its mild disorganization isn’t dissimilar to the direction Rihanna was moving on “Anti.” That was the first moment in which she truly stepped out into uncharted territory, showing off unexpected strengths that had long been hidden. “Thank U, Next” proves that Grande, too, has many other places to roam.