It is extremely hard for one artist to capture the public eye for a while nowadays. Not only is the attention span of the general public getting shorter by the day, but the tried and true tactics of pop music marketing are becoming outdated. The times they are a-changin’.
That’s what makes Ariana Grande’s domination of popular culture for the past few months so special. She has been the celebrity on everybody’s lips, and all of the buzz accumulated with one small song: “thank u, next”. The combination of her highly-covered relationship with Pete Davidson, the passing of ex-boyfriend and rapper Mac Miller from a drug overdose, and a seemingly endless list of other scandals and incidents all went into this one song that became a cultural phenomenon the moment it dropped. “thank u, next” is the antithesis to the demand to separate the art from the artist; it is impossible to grasp all of the meaning of the song without knowing of all that Ariana Grande has gone through for the past couple of years.
The same goes for the whole record, as ‘thank u, next’ is Grande’s most personal, conceptual record yet. Lyrics concerning her past relationships and her mental health can be found all over this record, but much of the record focuses on her relationship with Pete Davidson. And it isn’t just a cursory look at it; from her need of space away from the people she loves (“NASA”), to the desperate measures she’d take to save a doomed relationship (“bad idea”), to the unhealthy but passionate ways she expresses her love (“needy”), Grande and her co-writers tackle her complicated, rocky, and at times toxic relationship with Davidson and her part in it in an incredibly in-depth manner.
Fusing the personal with pop
While an Ariana Grande project is not going to bring the most poetic lyrics in the history of pop, lines like “Highlight of my life, just like that Fenty Kit” are not going to be winning her a Nobel Prize à la Bob Dylan anytime soon, they are simple in a way that’ll paint a clear picture and does justice to the thought behind the songs’ messages. Not to mention that Grande, one of the best vocalists working in pop today, is able to sell these lyrics extremely well, squeezing as much emotion she can out of each line. From the lyrics and themes to the delivery of them, this is an album that could only come from Ariana Grande.
But it would not matter if the lyrics on ‘thank u, next’ rivaled Shakespeare; this is an Ariana Grande album, so killer, catchy pop songwriting is to be expected. Thankfully, ‘thank u, next’ follows in suit with previous records and delivers on the hooks and pieces of pop gold. Songs like “NASA”, “bloodline”, and “bad idea” follow in the footsteps of previous pop highlights from Grande’s past records, with their slick pop production and choruses that land with immense impact, submerging themselves into the listener and not leaving. Grande’s continued collaboration with pop mastermind Max Martin further proves the two are one of the most powerful duos in pop music this decade.
Wonderfully written, but safely produced
The real surprise of ‘thank u, next’ is that the lyrics turned out to be much more intriguing than the production. Albums like ‘Dangerous Woman’ owe a lot of their quality to the bold pop production that acted as the vehicle for well-written pop songs. Songs like “Into You” wouldn’t be as show-stopping as they are if they didn’t sound as colossal and flooring as they do. ‘thank u, next’, while cleanly produced and far from unprofessional, is disappointingly safe and trendy. Pharrell Williams, for as much (undeserved) flack he got for his production on ‘Sweetener’, brought an interesting, fresh musical palette to the album.
“bad idea” had the potential to be an absolutely amazing song, it has one of the best-written Grande hooks in a while, but it needed a more substantial instrumental backing than a passable trap beat. The strings on the bridge and the outro were a nice change of pace, but even the latter was not smoothly transitioned into. “in my head” suffers from a similar fate, and songs like “7 Rings” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” are a different level when it comes to blandness. It is understandable why the most successful pop star in the industry right now would follow the current trends, but it is a bit disappointing.
The interesting twist is that the songs on ‘thank u, next’ that go in a much softer musical direction are the most interesting. “needy”’s minor key chords gives the track an uneasy vibe that works well with the less than happy tone of the song and the vocal harmonies on the pre-chorus and chorus are wonderfully executed. “ghostin” is a perfect example of how an atmospheric alternative r&b song should be done; it’s a hauntingly sad song that ranks as one of Grande’s most emotionally powerful tracks yet, with the best lyrics on the whole record (the second verse may just be the best set of lyrics to ever grace an Ariana Grande album), and the most intricate, beautiful production on the record. Even “thank u, next”, the song that took the world by storm, is built around these soft, warm synths that compliment the themes of self-love and positivity.
With tracks like “ghostin” and “in my head”, ‘thank u, next’ reaches a point in its second half where Grande and Co. are pumping out solid track after solid track that still carry the emotional power that comes with the her personal tales. But everything comes to a halt with “7 Rings”, a song that so obviously reached the #1 on Billboard 100 mostly due to Ariana’s momentum. While the song could be tangentially connected to the album’s concept, being proud of one’s wealth could be considered a form of self-love, by itself it’s one of the shallowest songs Grande has released to date, and not just in a lyrical sense. The track’s beat is some of the most nondescript trap production out there. Even the most memorable part of the track, the “My Favorite Things” interpolation in the verses, isn’t exactly memorable for good reasons. The song, alongside the passable but unnecessary “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”, completely derails the record when the title track would have been the perfect album closer.
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