One of pop's biggest stars deals with trauma and tragedy on her bold new album
“I’m a girl with a whole lot of baggage,” Ariana Grande sings on ‘Ghostin’’ in pop’s latest “No shit” exclamation. It might be an obvious statement but it’s one that bears repeating. This is, after all, a woman who has been through the most torrid of times, from having to deal with her fans being targeted by a suicide bomber, her ex-boyfriend dying of an accidental overdose, and her relationship very publicly breaking down after very publicly being on the rise. Of course, she has baggage to spare.
Grande is someone who knows trauma inside out, given her recent experiences. Her latest album, ‘Thank U, Next’, is a kind of tribute to that and to resilience and finding strength in the darkest of moments. It could easily be a self-pitying album, one ready to dwell in the wreckage of incidents, but instead keeps picking up and moving on; providing a guide to how to keep on keeping on even when it feels like whatever you do is going to end in devastation.
“remember when I was like hey I have no tears left to cry and the universe was like HAAAAAAAA bitch u thought,” Grande tweeted in November 2018. It was both a damning indictment of the unpredictability of life – one minute you’re having the time of your life, the next you’re very much the opposite – and an acknowledgment that we never really know when our tough times will truly be over. But what followed saw the star reclaiming the narrative and not letting herself be overtaken by the story surrounding her.
It’s only been six months since Grande delivered her career high in ‘Sweetener’, but already her new era is teaching the world plenty of lessons. On the title track, she makes the case for not being so petty and bitter as some of us are wont to be, even when we know it’s wrong. On the other hand, the Wendy Rene-sampling ‘Fake Smile’ finds the singer hiding behind her emotions and putting on a brave face, while ‘In My Head’ hs the star grappling between a person’s reality and the version she built of them in her head.
Men prevail over the initial storylines of the songs but it’s women who reign over the finished tracks. Rihanna might be taking her time with R9 but her influence is all over ‘Thank U, Next’ to more than tide us over. ‘Bloodline’ sounds like a ‘Rude Boy’-lite track that thrives on throbbing beats, while the sassy infidelity anthem ‘Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored’ relies on a semi-rapped, disenfranchised vocal over booming bass and effects. It’s a neat coincidence, then, that ‘Make Up’, finds Grande referencing her Fenty Beauty kit.
Above all, ‘Thank U, Next’ is a document of self-care; a guide to getting through bad times even when you think nothing could ever be good again. The album holds the keys to numbing the pain through ill-advised trysts (‘Bad Idea’), giving yourself space from your loved ones in the midst of life’s complexities (‘NASA’), and eking out negativity by chasing people who are wrong for you (‘Bloodline’).
The most emotional moment, though, comes in the aforementioned ‘Ghostin’’, a track whose warped notes pull at your heartstrings even before Grande begins to detail what is presumably the spirit of the late Miller arriving in her dreams. It’s a masterclass in poignant songwriting using the simplest of tools – one voice and one very simple melodic foundation – and one that gives stirring context to the rest of the album’s break-up references.
There are some breaks from the bleakness on the album. ‘7 Rings’ finds Grande listing her favourite things in the style of The Sound Of Music, from lashes to diamonds, champagne to stacks on stacks of cash. It’s rare that women get to boast about the riches they can easily afford but Grande does so in a way that makes you want to be able to splash your cash in exactly the same way instead of being resentful about your financial shortcomings.
And then there’s the title track, which tackles acrimony in an entirely different way – the singer noting the lessons she’s learned from her past exes where lesser beings would simply settle for mouthing off about the annoying but insignificant in the grand scheme of things habits their old lovers indulged in. It, like the rest of the album, is a reminder that, with positivity and hope, if Grande can get through the last two years, we can get through anything life throws our way.
Release date: February 8
Record label: Republic