A realist whose dreams complicate her life, Ariana Grande has spent the last half decade treating listeners like adults.
She wasn’t, to quote one of her hits, a dangerous woman—she was a “dangerous woman,” a character that turned men’s heads and kept them riveted with her chalky, plummy soprano. On her first top two single she assured a lover, “I got 99 problems but you won't be one.” Last year she ruined therapy pop for another decade by releasing “Breathin’,” almost devoid of self-help clichés, which, in these trying times, is as much a blessing as midterm voting.
Thank U, Next shares a title with another anthem, the first single under her own name to top the Billboard Hot 100. Released six months after 2018’s Sweetener, this album improves on that serviceable collection of junked Pharrell beats and unsound Max Martin arrangements. Listeners know the Ariana of “Dangerous Woman” and “Bang Bang” is back as soon as she releases her fictive muse on opener “Imagine,” which goes one better than John Lennon by picturing a lover who sends out for pad thai, luxuriates in a bath with bubbly and bubbles, tells her secrets and “creepy shit,” and whose name she wants to see in the credits in the awesome soft-porn flick she’d direct. Producers Happy Perez and Pop Wansel shrewdly drop the instruments when she gets to the hook: “Imagine a world like that.”
Aware that dealing with flesh requires practice with fantasy, Grande doesn’t let up on the scenarios, the pulpier the better. Insouciance and introspection breezily co-exist on the title track. The electro-dub instrumentation gives her the space to indulge. “Bloodlines” on first glance might go the worn route; instead, she warns the lover that she wants his body, not his soul. Over wobbly distorted synth, Grande uses her sweetest Cyndi Lauper timbre to reassure a boyfriend that “we’ll get past this” on the self-explanatory “Ghostin’.” This time, no comma: it’s thank you—next. Closer “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” isn’t just a valiant declaration of principles, it also calls shit on Drake and former collaborator the Weeknd for their fuck-me-I’m-high routine, as bullseye and deadly as an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweet.
At 41 minutes, Thank U, Next doesn’t shilly-shally with inapt guest vocalists, but a few tunes in the middle (“Bad Idea,” “In My Head”) are title concepts in search of commensurate musical girth. And “7 Rings” remains an only-in-the-2010s accumulation of lazy tropes with a crunchy-chewy ironic crust; whether she’s parodying white stereotypes about hip-hop artists’ excess, thumbing her nose at red carpet divadom, or signaling that she streamed The Sound of Music once, her role-playing strands her on an empty stage. To be a performer, though, is to experiment and fail. Unevenness is description, not criticism. Ariana Grande’s got this.