With all twelve songs making the Billboard Hot 100 Chart within its debut week, and with its titular song breaking streaming and viewing records online, Ariana Grande’s thank u, next has certainly transformed the pop singer into a major force in the music world.
Grande’s fifth studio album was borne in the wake of a simultaneously successful and distressing 2018 for the 25-year old artist. Within six months, she released an top-selling album, Sweetener, got engaged, suffered the loss of a former partner, and broke off an engagement. On Nov. 3, 2018, Grande released “thank u, next”; reflecting on her whirlwind year, she sings, “I’ve loved and I’ve lost,” and ultimately pays tribute to every up and down that she experienced.
Indeed, the hardships Grande faced arguably allowed her to develop thank u, next in such a short amount of time following the release of Sweetener. Raw with emotion and genuine gratitude toward her past, Grande interweaves messages of love, independence, loss, misunderstanding, and empowerment into each of her tracks. While thank u, next maintains the integrity of previous works through her exploration of the modern pop genre, it is saturated with her emerging aesthetic: song titles stylized in lower-case lettering, an appreciation for glamor, a reimagined early 2000’s culture that clashes with contemporary sounds. The album takes listeners through songs that sound undeniably Ari—showing off her famous high notes as they compliment catchy, R&B-esque choruses—while also revealing a previously unseen vulnerability.
The album begins with “imagine,” a song released as a single in December of 2018. Soft and buttery, featuring an orchestral sequence in its bridge, “imagine” appears to set the album’s tone, sounding similar to the artist’s past work, presenting the concepts of love and adoration that have permeated her career thus far. After the conclusion of the first two tracks on the album, however, Grande blesses us with “NASA.” Romantic love may be presented as a dependency and requirement in other pop music, but “NASA” flips this narrative. Beginning with a sound bite, “This is one small step for woman / One giant leap for womankind,” Grande takes a piece of history traditionally centered around men and re-writes it for women. “NASA” is an upbeat anthem of independence and transferring power into the hands of women—she sings, “I need me time” and “you know time apart is beneficial”—and it is one that listeners will find stuck in their heads for hours at a time.
With songs like “bloodline” and “bad idea,” Grande peppers thank u, next with equally empowering songs that encourage freedom of choice and agency; however, the album also remains fresh with its slower, more heartfelt tracks. In songs like “fake smile” and “in my head,” Grande sings about her struggles with fame and miscommunication, allowing listeners insight into her humanity despite her social status. The album’s eighth track, “ghostin,” is particularly reflective of Grande’s sensitivities; a song about love that persists after a breakup, even during attempts to move on, “ghostin” is certainly one of the softest yet heaviest pieces of thank u, next. As she pleads and apologizes to her new partner for her inability to move on, Grande brings listeners into the complicated situation she faces; and while is poetic, it is not incomprehensible. The song is a straightforward ode to her past relationships that is heartbreakingly sincere and shockingly sad.
The final three tracks on thank u, next demonstrate Grande’s resilience as she encourages listeners to love themselves. Holding the top three spots of the Billboard Hot 100 in the album’s first week, “7 rings,” “thank u, next,” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” combine for a fitting conclusion to thank u, next, exuding self-love and acceptance. While “7 rings” and “thank u, next” are rather straightforward, “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” has encountered relative criticism surrounding its message—Grande apparently encouraging a man to cheat on his girlfriend. Such a man may be easily be characterized as bored or unsatisfied, exercising his power in society and electing another woman as his object of desire; but Grande shifts the narrative; the woman is given control and allowed to feel desire, which has not historically been granted for women.
When we, your authors, heard thank u, next for the first time, we immediately fell in love with every dimension of Grande’s album: its shifts between high and low energy tracks, its distinctive sound when compared to her past albums, and its ability to merge pop, R&B, and a hint of jazz into a coherent piece of art. In our dorm room, we often play Grande’s music while getting ready for class in the morning, and we sometimes listen to the album through our headphones at the same time when we part ways. We are a little bit extra.
Nevertheless, Grande’s music, especially thank u, next, is wildly popular for good reason. Grande is simply an incredibly talented artist. She has given listeners something to sing along with, bond over, think deeply about, and discuss—this is grounded in the deep honesty and vulnerability presented in this album. With thank u, next, Grande makes themes of fame, loss, and love accessible—and at the end of the day, the album encourages fans to look back on their lives, be grateful for their experiences, learn from them, and say “thank u, next.”
Graney is an English Sophomore and Editor-in-Chief.
Lafferty is an Art History and Government Sophomore and Creative Director.