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Album of the Week: 'thank u, next' - Ariana Grande
15th February 2019
Some of the best musical artists find ways to transform themselves album after album - to reinvent their image, evolve their musical style, even learn something about themselves through the process. David Bowie, Lady Gaga, Kanye West, Björk - all of these artists have managed to elevate their sound through change. In 'thank u, next' Ariana Grande gives us a completely different sound from 2018's 'Sweetener', doing so with class and style. I see this album as the counterpart to 'Sweetener', inverting its sunny synths and 80s vibes for something that elucidates the tragedy Grande has been through in a more interesting way. After all, the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and breaking off an engagement with SNL's Pete Davidson would prompt a serious re-evaluation from anybody. These events have culminated in a musical style that grows out of 'Sweetener', capitalising on the hints of trap and turning it into something moodier. Grande still retains her signature breathy voice, something that fits perfectly with this new sound.
The opening track 'Imagine' encapsulates this new direction in the most effective manner out of all the songs. A typical trap beat, soaring vocals, simple background chords (and even some whistle notes for good measure) combine to convey the fantasy that Grande desperately wants to support, but ultimately cannot. This fantasy is shattered with the track 'needy', which sees Grande admitting how clingy she can be. I particularly enjoy the distorted chords at the beginning; a signal for the experimental production scattered throughout the album. Here, Grande inverts typical associations with 'needy' people, instead declaring that it's important to be vulnerable. This idea, however, is contrasted throughout with the more upbeat couplet of songs that proclaim her independence both romantically and sexually, such as 'NASA' and 'bloodline'. I personally find these songs to be a little cliché for my liking, but I could imagine 'bloodline' being a potential single because of its dancehall-infused personality. Grande returns to the idea of a shattered fantasy with the track 'fake smile', which uses the famous Wendy Rene sample to convey her guise of happiness through tragedy.
However, the latter half of the album is where the energy and emotion picks up. The concepts are more focused, the melodies are catchier, and the production is bolder. Admittedly, whilst the concept for 'bad idea' is one that has been repeated for many, many, many pop songs, the chopped n' screwed outro combined with the jagged melodic contours make this a really fun song to listen to! The same could be said for 'make up', which sees Grande parallel sexual innuendos with makeup. Her voice here is sweet, but the instrumentation reminds me of an out-of-tune music box (in the best way possible). I particularly enjoy the dragging snare beat; that one second of delay immediately adds flavour to the track and makes it more interesting than a typical pop drum beat. 'in my head' is a slight disappointment, as the concept has been well worn out throughout pop music, but I do like the chorus and how the production obscures those upper notes. And the first single, 'thank u next', combines sunny synths with relatively pared-down drum beats to create a fun pop track that that could only be pulled off with somoene with a voice as phenomenal as Grande.
The other trap-infused beats on the latter half of the album are tracks that I do not find particularly original; nevertheless, Grande makes them catchy enough to be enjoyable. '7 Rings' appropriates typical rap narratives of materialism; this time, it's depicting Grande's recovery methods from tragedy. It's a statement that jars from her public image, but the chords behind it make it fun enough to enjoy listening to. Even though the breathy chorus is annoying, I was highly impressed with the later rap section. I don't support claims that it rips off Princess Nokia or Soulja Boy - I initially thought it was mimicking A$AP Rocky's 'Praise the Lord' - I just think the song is so unoriginal in its concept that it really rips off most of trap nowadays. However, I did like 'break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored' - the title made me laugh quite a bit. Nevertheless, I still think the song is musically generic, and quite bland.
However, the song that was the true standout to me was 'ghostin', a track which capitalises on Grande’s silky vocals, effective instrumentation and lyricism. Even though it was probably compounded by the context behind it, hearing Grande singing about the lingering memory of a past lover whilst she's in the arms of her current lover is heartbreaking. The ghostly synths save this song from veering off into cheesy territory, and they support Grande's soft, delicate execution. The string section that comes in adds a melancholy sadness to the track as well as some subtle rhythm. Everything swells at the track’s climax, and it’s a beautiful tribute to the suffering Grande has gone through.
Ultimately, the album shows concerted effort from Ariana Grande to make this interesting, and it’s this effort that really makes me respect the music. Whilst it missed on a few of the songs, Grande’s willingness to take risks whilst never compromising her emotions make me like this album a lot. She’s managed to reinvent herself in the wake of ‘sweetener’s happiness, and in the process, help us to understand the intricacies of tragedy in a more intimate manner.
- Photo credits to Alexi Lubomirski