Critic's Notebook: 'Thank U, Next' Marks the Start of Ariana Grande Fatigue
The pop diva’s new album mostly rings hollow, the work of an artist who seems to have lost track of her personality and purpose.
"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,” Ariana Grande admits on her new song "Needy." It might be one of the truest things she’s ever said.
Thank U, Next, the child-star-turned-pop-diva’s fifth studio album, dropped late last night, landing with a bit of a thud: Her technical prowess is still undeniable and there are a handful of effective moments, but the whole thing feels like a cheap champagne hangover.
Sweetener, her previous album, came out less than six months ago. And it’s hard not to read Thank U, Next as a set of leftovers from these same 2018 sessions, or an unnecessary sequel to Sweetener’s shining brightness. Sweetener, recorded and released during Grande’s wacky whirlwind relationship with Pete Davidson, felt rushed and ethereal in a fun way; Thank U, Next feels like she’s scrambling to distance herself from Davidson and that period. She's pivoted from head-over-heels codependent lover to confident single party girl in mere months.
In that same period, of course, Grande’s ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died, no doubt leaving her with plenty to process. She’s also continued to double down on public messiness, like social media feuds with fans after foolishly getting a tattoo in Japanese that says “Small Charcoal Grill.” The tattoo was supposed to say “7 Rings,” one of the tracks on this record, but like someone from the 2000s, Grande rushed into getting mistranslated ink and then tried to claim she wasn’t appropriating culture.
She also has recently pulled out of performing at this Sunday’s Grammys and seems to be looking for conflict wherever she goes. Her M.O., like her contemporary Taylor Swift, has always been to play the victim when she gets put on blast and things get dicey. But Grande isn’t as disciplined a public figure as Swift, and has spent a lot of her recent time online doing damage control. Since her last album, Grande seems to be happy burning a lot of cultural currency and turning heel, and Thank U, Next finds her sort of lightly confronting that fact — but with little resolve.
The most interesting moments on the album are when the producers sample and interpolate recognizable records. “Fake Smile” cribs Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” also famously flipped on the first Wu-Tang LP. “Bad Idea” feels like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” with a bizarre orchestral trap breakdown, itself a pretty bad idea.
“7 Rings,” which the aforementioned tattoo was supposed to reference, finds Grande reworking the Julie Andrews anthem “My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music but subbing “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” with “Girls with tattoos who like getting in trouble.” That bratty swagger might be the album’s most honest moment.
As to be expected, Grande shows off her vocal acrobatics (particularly on “In My Head”), and though the album’s filler-heavy, you can imagine her hardcore fans getting what they came for — including in some purposefully vague lyrics that fans can parse for allusions to Miller, Davidson, Big Sean or any of her other suitors. It’s easy to read both Miller and Davidson as possible subjects of “Ghostin,” though she’s been coy about its meaning. The album is full of these serviceable bits that really don’t amount to much in the bigger picture.
“Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored” finds her reworking *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill” and will likely be the most memorable new single on the record, though it’s not her most artful turn. The title track “Thank U, Next” rings tired at this point, having been in heavy rotation for months and grating after more than a couple of listens. (It’s also become a catchphrase of the ultra-petty, a generic catchall “F.U.” that has become toothless as politicians have co-opted it.) And both of these tracks are strangely tucked at the end of the album (maybe this to boost streams of the other tracks?), an unfortunately fitting finale for a record that feels sloppily and arbitrarily sequenced.
There’s something overwhelmingly Drakeian about Thank U, Next, like it’s the second half of an abandoned dark-light double LP project. While Grande doesn’t go to the same Faustian levels of hardcore navel-gazing as Drake, the two have more in common than perhaps people assume. Grande, like Drake, is a former child star who has let her online persona start to subsume her. They’re both great at the art of mimicry; the flipside is they often don’t seem to have real personalities. This record rings mostly hollow, like the sound of someone realizing she doesn’t know who she is anymore.