What do you do when things fall apart? If you’re Ariana Grande, you pick yourself up, dust yourself off and head for the studio. Her hopeful fourth album, Sweetener—written after the deadly attack at her concert in Manchester—encouraged fans to stay strong and open to love (at the time, the singer was newly engaged to Pete Davidson). Shortly after the album’s release in August 2018, things fell apart again: Grande’s ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, died from an overdose in September and her relationship with Davidson ended a few weeks later.
Again, Grande took solace from the intense, and intensely public, heartache in songwriting, but this time things were different. thank u, next, mostly recorded over those tumultuous months, sees her turning inward in an effort to cope, grieve, heal and let go. “Though I wish he were here instead/Don’t want that living in your head,” she confesses on “ghostin”, a gutting synth-and-strings ballad that hovers in your throat. “He just comes to visit me/When I’m dreaming every now and then.” Like many of the songs here, it was produced by Max Martin, who has a supernatural way of making pain and suffering sound like beams of light.
The album doesn’t arrive a minute too soon. As Grande wrestles with what she wants—distance (“NASA”) and affection (“needy”), anonymity (“fake smile”), star power (“7 rings”) and sex without strings attached (“bloodline”, “make up”)—we learn more and more about the woman she’s becoming: complex, independent, tenacious. Surely embracing all of that is its own form of self-empowerment.
But Grande also isn’t in a rush to grow up. A week before the album’s release, she swapped out a particularly sentimental song called “Remember” with the provocative, *NSYNC-sampling “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”. As expected, it sent her fans into a frenzy. “I know it ain’t right/But I don’t care,” she sings. Maybe the ride is just starting.