Roundtable Discussion: A Review of Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’

Ariana Grande - thank u, next

Atwood Magazine’s writers discuss the highs, lows, controversies, and the beautiful intimacy of pop diva Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ – her second album in six months. thank u, Ariana.

Featured here are writers Mariel FechikCarmen Chan, Nicole AlmeidaJames CrowleyCaitlin Ison, and Josh Weiner

Ariana Grande - thank u, next

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The obvious first question here: How does Ariana Grande’s thank u, next function as a followup to Sweetener, released just six months ago?

Josh: I feel like the transition works well. The fact that it’s a slightly shorter album keeps it from stealing too much of Sweetener’s thunder and also helps with the album’s consistency. Rolling Stone described it as “her Amnesiac to Sweetener’s Kid A,” and I was personally reminded of when Kanye West followed up with Watch the Throne less than a year after My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy back in my college days. In all of these cases, it’s impressive to see one of the leading artists of the moment at the peak of their game release two records in tandem that compliment each other well thematically.

James: I really enjoy it. Sweetener was a really great album that I didn’t like.  When friends would ask what I thought of it, I would respond with something along the lines of “It’s a very good album, and it’s an Ariana album I should really like, but I don’t.”  With the release of “thank u, next” and “7 rings,” I was much more invested, especially since the public had begun following Grande’s personal life more.  Thank u, next is a great text: simple yet lush production, fluid genres, and an emotional delivery, and the subtext of Grande’s personal life makes it all the more compelling.

Mariel: thank u, next feels less like an album and more like a mixtape, which is honestly somewhat refreshing. Sweetener was the first Ariana Grande album I ever listened to in full and came to love, but it felt like a typical pop album in terms of it having a big rollout and being hyped up production of a thing. thank u next, which was supposedly made in about two weeks, has a fresher quality to it, sounding more like it might have been made in someone’s basement rather than the expensive studio it was made in. It also feels like a musical diary of sorts, and though she has several co-writers on thank u, next, the songs do feel that they come more directly from her. She seems less like a pawn of the pop music machine here than she did on Sweetener. The lack of features definitely adds to this feeling as well, which I appreciate. She said in an interview that she wanted to release music “like these boys do,” referring to hip-hop artists who often release music at a higher frequency thanks to the advent of SoundCloud, and I applaud her for that mindset.

Caitlin: As everyone was expecting, there was a huge shift in mood from Sweetener to thank u, next, but I think it transitions well. A lot of the songs have contrasting themes, so the two kind of go hand in hand. A lot of things happened in Grande’s life (publically, not to mention) in the few months between the two album releases. Sweetener also deals with a lot of the repercussions and emotional trauma Grande dealt with following the Manchester attack, so I think both albums are quite heavy and honest in contrast to her previous albums. I wasn’t sure what to expect knowing it was written in such a short time span. Grande has an incredible, talented writing team behind her, so it wasn’t too shocking (although I audibly gasped multiple times during the first listen) that almost all the tracks on this album were consistent and – to put it simply – really good.

Carmen: First off, six months is a crazy fast turnaround for any artist to release a high-profile followup album. I also appreciate that instead of coasting on the popularity and success of Sweetener, Grande decided to employ different musical styles and lyrical content on thank u, next. As I only very recently started to seriously listen to Grande’s music (I finally got around to listening to Sweetener in January), I was pleasantly surprised that she was releasing her next project so quickly. I really enjoyed Sweetener, and was looking forward to this album, especially because the singles “thank u, next” and “7 rings” piqued my interest. However, on the whole, I much prefer Sweetener over thank u, next. Something about the way Grande’s voice popped over Pharell’s production just made Sweetener a joyous and buoyant listening experience.

Nicole: As much as I loved Sweetener, it took a while for me to really like that album and appreciate its value and message – a lot of this was due to the production which made it seem like two different albums, and some weird song choices. thank u, next was an instant hit with me, I love how the songs go together, the story that they tell, and especially how open Grande is in all her lyrics. She’s flawed, lonely, hurting, but also growing, healing, and learning to love herself again. I feel like thank u, next could not have been made without Sweetener, I feel like Sweetener was Grande taking the wheel and thank u, next is her arriving at her final destination. They work well together as artistic statements for her, but thank u, next definitely has my heart.

What do you feel are thank u, next‘s standout tracks and lyrics? What are your least favorite tracks?

James: “ghostin” is the highlight from the album.  It’s very simple and warm, even when she sings, “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again/Over him, mmh/I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again/’Stead of ghostin’ him.”  It sees like a really honest exploration of how Mac Miller’s death affected her relationship with Pete Davidson, but it’s still relatable to anyone that feels like they’re in a love triangle.

I don’t love “make up.”  It seems like “7 rings” lite.

Josh: “bloodline” is cool– it’s got kind of a dark feel which I like, and those opening trumpets are killer. And “ghostin” is beautifully sung. I’ll submit those two as standouts here. Nothing really sticks out as a “least favorite track” of mine, conversely– Ariana has already done a fine job of weeding out out-of-place songs from her albums’ tracklists.

Mariel: I can split this album very distinctly between songs I love, songs that are ok, and songs I can’t stand. For me, the best, most artistic, standout tracks are “imagine,” “needy,” “fake smile,” “make up,” and “in my head.” These are the songs that I think are by far the most interesting musically, with interesting samples (“fake smile”) and occasionally a Beyonce vibe (“make up,” “in my head”). Her voice absolutely soars on “imagine,” which has such a wistful quality to it, not to mention an interesting, unconventional construction. The same goes for “in my head,” which once again shows off her impressive range and run stylings. Lyrics, to be honest, are the last thing I come to Ariana Grande for. She’s not a poet, but there are some nice moments here, and I appreciate much of this album’s bluntness about her experiences.

I absolutely cannot stand “bad idea.” The beginning guitar makes me think of Bon Jovi in an extremely negative way, and it is by far the most boring, typical pop track on the record. I also have some issues with “7 rings,” largely to do with all the conversation about appropriation that’s surrounded it since its release. “bloodline” is just a knockoff “Side to Side” off of Dangerous Woman. That being said, this album has been like candy – I really can’t stop listening.

Caitlin: “NASA” caught my attention when I first listened to the album, purely for its catchy melody, but I also love the play on words throughout the song. It also gave me a 90’s R&B vibe. “in my head” is a favorite of mine just for the relatable subject, which I think many people could agree with. I would also note “imagine” is a standout song because of Grande’s incredible whistle notes she hits in the bridge, which shocked everyone when she performed it live on Jimmy Fallon. Although I love the album as a whole, I would say the song I care about the least is “make up.” It’s quite short and I don’t think there’s anything really special about it, compared to the other tracks.

Carmen: My favorite tracks on the album are “needy” and “ghostin.” I love the slightly warped chords on “needy,” as well as the backing vocals in lieu of synths in the chorus. The instrumental is relatively minimal, but really effective, building slowly before cutting away to a lovely string arrangement that closes the track. I also really like the lyric “Good at overthinking with my heart” in the pre-chorus. I enjoy the track “ghostin” for similar reasons. Lyrically and musically, the song is in perfect synergy, creating an emotional punch to the gut that really moved me the first time I listened to the track. Also, the line “Your Gucci tennis shoes, runnin’ from your issues” off “in my head” is pretty funny; what a callout.

On the other hand, the track “bloodline” is my least favorite on the album. Overall, I find the track pretty generic. There is little to no variation in the melody throughout the song, and the subject matter isn’t anything new. She pretty much covers the same ground on “bad idea” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored,” all songs that didn’t stand out to me when listening to the entire album.

Nicole: “ghostin’” is the album’s most successful moment in my opinion, it was the first song off thank u, next that I listened to, and it’s basically responsible for making me love this record despite sounding different to every other song. I am obsessed with “bad idea”, especially its outro, because I find it so fun and catchy, and “imagine” is a perfect opener that had me from the moment it was released in December. There are no songs that I dislike on this record, only some that I love more than others. I actually feel like each song is a perfect fit for different moments in your life, so as long as you listen to songs that match your mood, there’s no going wrong with thank u, next in my opinion. That being said, I feel like the spoken intros for “bloodline”, “NASA”, and “in my head” as well as the sample that opens “fake smile” feel a little formulaic and forced – I’d like to understand why they’re all at the start of these tracks and how they add to the narrative of these songs, why they felt like a necessary inclusion. They’re fun and add a personal element of Grande’s life to the album, but I don’t think they add much depth to each of the tracks.

Lots of people are saying this is the best album in Ariana Grande’s career – agree/disagree?

Josh: All of her albums are good, so it’s kind of hard to say, but this one is definitely up there. It doesn’t sound terribly different from Sweetener (not a flaw– it’s nice that she’s settled on a style that works well for her) but that does make it difficult to distinguish the album from its predecessor when evaluating her catalogue.

James:  Yes, but I don’t feel like that says a lot. Grande’s proper debut album only came out 6 years ago. Thank u, next was so much more anticipated than Dangerous Woman or even Sweetener. Sweetener did cement her place as a capital ‘P’ Popstar, but thank u, next has a greater emotional appeal. This is because it’s born from a place of pain, and we’ve followed Grande so much in the past 7-8 months. We’re rooting for her, and we feel like she’s our friend.

All that being said, it’s doubtful that this will be the last career-defining album from Grande.  Sweetener showed us that she’s set for a lengthy career in pop music, but thank u, next showed that she can make a really great album.

Mariel: When people began saying this an hour after it was out, I scoffed. You can’t make that kind of assertion that quickly. I still feel that it’s a bit of a hyperbole to say that. Sweetener was better from a musical standpoint, and that’s largely because she had Pharrell writing for her. However, thank u, next feels like a more fully Ariana Grande album. Like I mentioned in the first question, this album feels more direct from her to you. Though it might not be…it feels like it. And that’s a nice change of pace from the way most pop albums seem to descend from on high down to us plebeians – regardless of whether or not they really deserve our admiration.

Caitlin: I’m a huge fan of Ariana Grande. I fell in love with her character in Victorious, followed her short lived Youtube career, and was over the moon when she released her first single, “The Way.” That being said – I don’t think this is her best album. I think her best would have to be either My Everything (2014) or Dangerous Woman (2016), for different reasons. My Everything, Grande’s sophomore album, really created a more mature sound and elevated her songwriting skills. It showed what Grande was capable of and put her on the map. Dangerous Woman, however, really pushed the singer into mainstream media, and was the beginning of a very successful career. It showcased her vocals extremely well, and also established her sound – that perfect balance of R&B and pop music.

Carmen: I disagree. I personally prefer the production and vibe of Sweetener. In comparison, the melodies on thank u, next aren’t nearly as sticky, nor is the production as fresh. Also, I’m nitpicking slightly, but so many of the songs on the album (e.g. “NASA,” “bloodline,” “fake smile,” “in my head”) begin with samples or guest vocals, so much so that it dulls its effect. In some cases, it felt almost like the sample was tacked on just to generate an intriguing intro, and didn’t add much else to the respective track.

Nicole: I am a new Ariana Grande fan, but I have to agree. Like Mariel said, it feels much more direct from her to you, and to manage to achieve that being a global superstar is very difficult. There’s obviously a whole machine behind Ariana Grande, but thank u, next makes it feel like she’s finally and assertively taking the reins of her image, sound, career, and public self. This album sounds like the girl who says things like “honest to god knock me out” and bought a mini pig because she felt like it and compulsively tweets about what kind of soup her and her friends are. Sound-wise, I love the trap-pop-&b sound she’s created, and I hope she continues exploring it further.

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande

This album came at a moment of incredible hardship in Ariana Grande’s life, and seemed to be a therapeutic and artistic form of catharsis for her. Do you think that comes through on the record?

James: I think it does by knowing what’s gone on in Grande’s personal life, but I feel the record is somewhat detached from the grief. We know it was therapeutic and cathartic, because we know about the Manchester Bombing, Mac Miller’s death, and her split from Pete Davidson. If this record exists within a vacuum, you could miss most of that. The title track and “ghostin” reflect aspects of Grande’s life recently, but otherwise, it could just be your run-of-the-mill record from one of the biggest popstars in the world.

Mariel: This record makes me sad for her. Despite some of the record’s bangers, she sounds weary. I do feel her pain come through these songs, especially on “fake smile” – the churning, anxiety-ridden verses and the resignation of the chorus lyric “fuck a fake smile.” The second track, “needy,” offers a similar feeling, though she feels more in control over the sweetly out of tune music box chords. It’s a statement of purpose, an admission of being a passionate overthinker, a sheepish nod to the way going through a lot can make you feel like you’re too needy with the people in your life.

At the same time, I think even the “bops” were a form of catharsis. “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” (though this song’s video has also taken its share of criticism from the queer community) is fun and silly, and must have been a blast for her to perform. The one thing I’m sure of is that the girl deserves a break. An article from BitchMedia highlighted the way in which the media doesn’t seem to approve of a single thing this woman has done, and that level of criticism is most certainly rooted in sexism. It needs to end.

Caitlin: As mentioned before, this album and Sweetener seem to be the most honest Grande has ever written, due to the explicit lyrics and not so hidden messages. Songs like “ghostin” and “in my head” are pretty on the nose about who she’s talking about, and I think that takes a lot for an artist to publicly display that out there, especially for someone who is always in the spotlight. I know Grande mentioned in an interview with Zach Sang that she originally did not want to name her exes in “thank u, next,” so I’m not too sure if the decisions for being so explicit were necessarily hers. Despite all of this, I hope that she does feel some sort of catharsis with these songs.

Josh: Any artist who can channel their personal woes into compelling lyrical material is on the right track, if you ask me. Keep it up, Ariana.

Carmen: Yes, for sure. Several times throughout the album she talks about having been through a lot, and the emotional baggage that came in the aftermath of the recent events in her life. Tracks like “ghostin,” “fake smile,” and “needy” give listeners a glimpse into Grande’s headspace, and how she is coping emotionally, as well as having to deal with these hardships in the public eye – all of which she references in the lyrics to “fake smile.”

Nicole: “ghostin’”. Enough said.

This album is steeped in accusations of appropriation and theft. What are your thoughts on these matters?

Josh: Look, music artists have been drawing upon The Sound of Music’s soundtrack for a solid 55 years now (Andre 3000, Gwen Stefani, and The Book of Mormon among them). And they’re going to keep doing so. I see no reason to cry foul over “7 rings” following this time-honored tradition.

James: My first thought when Princess Nokia’s response to “7 rings” came out was that Grande is following the tradition in hip hop where artists do tend to interpolate lines from other artists’ songs as a homage (usually), but also I felt Nokia had a strong point in that Grande had missed the message of her original song.  I’m not really in a space to judge what is and isn’t cultural appropriation, but I felt like this piece was worth the read.

Mariel: Many of my friends could attest to the fact that I’ve been driving myself a little crazy about this very subject. I can’t stop reading thinkpieces, blog posts, and hot Twitter takes, and I’m making my friends all crazy in the process of my sending each thing I come across. This is a complicated subject. Upon first listen of “7 rings,” I was immediately put off. “Oh no, Ari,” I thought, quelling my desire to bob my head along. There are quite literally thousands of Tweets about how angry people are about her trap beats, her “skrt skrts,” the lyrics about her weave. Some names I’ve seen her referred to as recently include “Appropriana,” “Arianiqua,” and “blackfish.”

However, the BuzzfeedNews article that James cites makes some excellent points: R&B and hip-hop tinged music has long been Ariana’s lane. When she was signed at 14, she immediately told record label execs that she wanted to make an R&B album. While this certainly doesn’t absolve anyone of appropriation accusations, she has often worked to center the voices and work of her co-writers and producers, many of whom are black R&B musicians. Ari’s co-writer and friend Tayla Parx (an incredible musician in her own right) recently came to her defense in a Vulture article. Of course, as a white Jewish girl, I hardly have the authoritative voice on this subject, but I do think it’s worth discussing.

Caitlin: I have too many thoughts about this! Like Mariel, I’ve been reading so many think pieces surrounding the topic. Considering I’m a big fan of hers, it saddens me that she has not spoken out about the subject, and I don’t think she ever will. The one that caught my attention the most was Princess Nokia’s accusation in copying her song “Mine,” released in 2017. Many people refuted Nokia’s argument because “everyone samples everyone,” but I read a lot of perspectives and I understand where she’s coming from, which is more than just an overused beat. “Mine” is a tribute to black women’s hair, which historically has been looked down upon and seen as “unprofessional” or “untidy.” Grande, a white woman, singing the lyrics “you like my hair? Gee thanks, just bought it,” on top of the similar beat Nokia is calling her out for, rubs me the wrong way. Fake hair has been looked down upon on black women, but when white women do it, it’s suddenly a trend. I think everyone should consider what is happening here and the opinions coming from those affected.

Carmen: I can’t fairly comment on the accusations of theft because I haven’t listened to the other songs, nor have I really bothered to keep up with the minutiae and commentary surrounding the accusations. To stir the pot even further, there’s also the whole botched tattoo situation. Unfortunately, it feels almost as though the news surrounding “7 rings” has overshadowed the actual music, but I do agree with James, Mariel, and Caitlin that appropriation in music is definitely an issue worth discussing. In this day and age, when access to music from all corners of the world is but a click away, it’s only natural that the traditional lines dividing music genres are blurring and almost dissolving completely. When it’s becoming all too easy to hop on a trend or draw influence from different sounds and genres, there’s no doubt that incidences and accusations of appropriation will increase.

Nicole: I don’t feel comfortable speaking about whether she’s appropriated or not. I’ve read about the matter extensively, and I’ve seen claims that go for and against Grande on that matter. The BuzzFeed article James cited was very informative for me, especially since I haven’t been following her career from the very beginning. Tayla Parx defending Grande also seemed like a big moment in this debate. Genres have started blurring and the internet is giving us so much content that it seems very difficult to find someone who hasn’t borrowed, stolen, or appropriated from other cultures – and this in no way makes it excusable, it just makes it easier. But the Internet also becomes a forum where these ideas can be discussed, artists can become aware of this, and hopefully be more careful. I feel like this will be one of those conversations that won’t ever end, but in my opinion it seems a little more like a grey area than the cultural appropriation accusations against Miley Cyrus and Iggy Azalea, for example. I think people who belong to the culture(s) she’s been accused of appropriating need to be heard, and their opinions are the ones that should be heard.

Ariana Grande 2019 photo
Ariana Grande

“thank u, next” and “7 rings” have been breaking record after record and are the album’s lead singles – do you think they accurately represent the album?

James: Yes, because they’re the most memorable tracks from the album. “7 rings” is a bonafide hit. The title track cuts the bullshit, and she straight up addresses every elephant in the room.  There’s no song on the album or one that will come out for the rest of the year that’ll give us the same feeling of “Holy shit.  What’s going on? How is this this good?” It feels similar to when Pusha T dissed Drake, but it’s mainly a song about self-love. Anyway, these are the two most radio-ready songs from this LP.

Mariel: I laugh as I write this after James, because radio-ready songs are just not what I’m looking for from Ariana Grande. We already have enough of those. She’s arguably one of the most talented singers in the music world right now – why would we want anymore stereotypical B96 bops? “thank u, next,” is excellent. I adore it, I’ve listened to it too many times, I’ve even sung it with my band at some shows. But I made my feelings on “7 rings” pretty clear above, and I honestly don’t think it accurately represents the album. It almost feels cartoonish compared to the melodic, stuttering “make up” or the subtle-but-buoyant “fake smile,” both of which are more interesting and mature.

Caitlin: “thank u, next” certainly does, in a sense that Grande wants to grow from her past that has hurt her so much. The songs are about how she has felt in previous relationships and also the pain she has felt in the spotlight (“fake smile”) so I would consider this album to be a learning curve in her life. I think “7 rings,” however, was purely released for media attention. Out of all the songs on the album, it sticks out the most, due to its subtle rap/trap genre mix. It’s also very surface level, in terms of its lyrics. I think it was a single to showcase Grande’s “popstar” complex, proving that she can one of today’s popular genres on the radio.

Josh: Well, it’s true that these are just two of a dozen tracks on the whole album, but I’d say they are relatively well-sized windows into the production, thematic content, and overall mood of thank u, next. Nothing radically out of place (i.e. a randomly thrown-in hard metal track) is included alongside these two decent singles.

Carmen: I think they represent but one facet of the album, in the sense that those two singles are the opposite side of the coin to sadder songs like “ghostin,” “fake smile,” and “needy.” These two singles might represent the brave face and image that Grande wishes to project to the public – a strong and independent woman who is learning from her mistakes and all the challenges that she has faced recently.

Nicole: They represent two (almost polar opposite) sides of Grande’s healing, and for that I think they represent what the album’s spirit is. Both are empowering and signs of someone moving on, and were perfect singles for the record sonically because they, in my opinion, reflect the most pop-leaning end of the album and also the trappiest song on it. I like that the singles only gave us a part of the story though, and compelled us enough to listen to the whole record and discover Grande’s whole narrative.

What do you think is missing, if anything, from thank u, next?

Josh: The singles here are all solid, but the devastating vocal showcases of her very best records— “Break Free,” “Dangerous Woman,” and “No Tears Left to Cry” among them — do not quite find their equal on this new album. That there are no guest artists on this record is a deliberate product of Ariana’s decision to enter the studio on her own and emerge with a new album’s worth of material two weeks later— but I do miss the fiery chemistry that emerged on her best duets, most of all on 2016’s “Side to Side” with Nicki Minaj.

Caitlin: Other than “imagine” I think this album really lacks in showcasing Grande’s vocals. There are some beautiful harmonies like in “ghostin'” and “in my head,” but I know she has so much more than this album features. At the same, I understand the decision in proceeding to do so, since Grande has established her talent in mainstream media as a powerhouse vocalist (as showcased in previous albums). As a fan, however, I wish there would have been more.

Mariel: Funnily enough, I have to disagree with my colleagues here. I think one of my favorite things about this album is the lack of powerhouse vocals. While I could listen to her belt all day long, I really appreciate the subtlety that she approached this album with. It highlights the sweetness in her voice that isn’t shown when she constantly belts, and especially shows off how cool her runs can be when she’s barely whispering. My favorite songs on Sweetener were the softer ones. I like the change and it would be interesting to see a mix of the two styles on future projects.

Carmen: I think 40 minutes is a great length for an album, so I don’t think any tracks are missing from the album. I also agree with Mariel in that I enjoyed the fact that Grande didn’t feel the need to show off her vocal range too much on this album. That being said, I do think it would be interesting to hear Grande sing on top of edgier, hard-hitting production, and maybe work with different producers for a more experimental sound.

Nicole: “pete davidson”… The interlude-like, more introspective song, not the guy (though I liked them as a couple).

Has thank u, next made you look at Ariana Grande differently as an artist?

Josh: Not tremendously, but that’s fine, because I already knew that she was a great singer who was capable of crafting a full album’s worth of compelling material, rather than the hits-plus-filler model that many other pop stars have embraced. thank u, next confirmed that impression once again and I’m glad that it did.

James: No, besides the fact that I like this album, and I’m kind of indifferent to the others.

Caitlin: I don’t think it has. I just see it as another layer of Grande that she has shown us. As a fan, I’m proud of her. As a critic, I’m eager to see what else she has to offer after this.

Mariel: My thoughts are Caitlin’s exactly.

Carmen: Listening to this album has made me appreciate the fact that Grande is an artist that is not afraid to be vulnerable and real in her lyrics. I definitely enjoyed the slower, more poignant tracks on the record because they resonated with me emotionally. I do feel that the lyrics are a strong point on this album, and makes for really relatable listening experience.

Nicole: It has made me appreciate her artistry a lot more because of how clear it is that the whole process of making and releasing thank u, next was necessary for her as a person and artist. I do agree with Caitlin and Mariel, I’m excited to see what comes after this.

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