Thank U, Next (Republic)
You may have heard that Ariana Grande broke up with her last boyfriend. The one who was the sugary goodness amid the post-Manchester bomb shadow in her 2018 album, Sweetener. An ex boyfriend died in the past year too.This was not, I would think, a good thing to happen. But as Beyonce could tell her, if the world gives you relationships which turn out to be lemons, you make Lemonade.
Generally speaking, if you’re going to make a break-up album, you can go hard and ugly, stripping the flesh from that low-down heartbreaker. Alternatively, you can be all sweetness and “it was me, not you”, with a mea culpa record that doubles as a plea for forgiveness and a not so subtle query of the “so you reckon we could give it another go?” variety.
Or you can try to work out not only what went wrong but why, with a level of introspection that falls short of dispassion (mate, that stuff can hurt for a good long while, we’re not getting to dispassion for some years) but reins in the passionate initial response.
Thank U, Next – like the title track which was one of the most enjoyable singles of 2018 – is an album which balances exquisitely, confidently, on the meeting points of those emotions.
She offers the truth behind platitudes of survival in Fake Smile (“Fuck a fake smile,” she declares after leaving a party she attended knowing “If I go alone, I’m not gonna make it very far.”) and the fact that she’s “Sorry if I’m up and down a lot/Sorry that I think I’m not enough” in the hardly hiding its point Needy.
There’s an apology for the rebound lover in Ghostin’ who has to lie there beside her while she relives (and intentionally or otherwise, measures everything against) the affair before this that failed; and a strut of want this/have this in Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.
And just as importantly, this album does the same balancing act thing at the meeting points of modern pop, for this is an album which feels like a throwing off of a lot of shackles. Not necessarily the sense of being a singer whose measuring stick remains Mariah Carey – that ship isn’t ever going to sail I reckon - but at least no longer someone always being packed into tiny genre boxes.
Grande, again often with the ubiquitous pop maven Max Martin or one of his almost as successful lieutenants, slides from hip hop intonations to florid pop bursts, from a Caribbean lean to an ‘80s R&B swoon. She cracks open a song with a strong sample from Wendy Rene’s soul gem After Laughter Comes Tears and packs in both a swollen string section and a cramped electronic insularity (in the beginning) and trilling backing vocals with glistening sounds (towards the end) of a track that lasts barely more than two minutes.
Then, she ends the album with a dark little scuttle beat and hooded eyed atmosphere that turns out to be a set of lust-fuelled misbehaviours that carries the sexiness-in-shadows of the aforementioned Beyonce. Not a comparison that should be made too easily these days.
But then, personally, and definitely musically, this is a collection that positively asserts itself. In control, Ariana Grande doesn’t need to wait for, or on, anyone.