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Ariana Grande Just Beat the Boys by Joining Them

The pop juggernaut’s ‘Thank U, Next’ is her second release in six months, and it’s possibly her best yet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Ariana Grande has an iconic high ponytail, a startling four-octave range, two no. 1 singles in the past three months, a genuinely distressing amount of public trauma and grief to process (publicly) for someone who is only 25, a convincing claim to being the biggest pop star in the world at exactly this moment, an active feud with the Grammys that only underscores her popularity, a raging cultural-appropriation controversy, a six-month-old and tremendously well-received album with a song called “Pete Davidson,” a brand-new album that is arguably better than that other album and is in part about getting over Pete Davidson, and a Japanese-language wrist tattoo that at press time still mistakenly reads “small charcoal grill, finger ♡.” This is, very much by design, a fluid situation.

Her new album, out Friday, is called Thank U, Next, after the first of those two no. 1 singles, surprise-released to great delight in November and by orders of magnitude the best song of her now five-album career. “Thank U, Next” calls out several of Grande’s famous exes—including former fiancée Davidson, current giant goober Big Sean, and the late Mac Miller—by name, in a flip but disarmingly wise way, the line “I’m so fuckin’ grateful for my ex” trilling off the opera-house staircase of her tongue with such timeless profundity that she might as well be quoting the Bible, or Jane Eyre, or When Harry Met Sally. This record’s current no. 1 single, “7 Rings,” is a noirish and far less profound ode to hedonism that interpolates Rodgers & Hammerstein (officially) and rips off cadences from 2 Chainz, Princess Nokia, and Soulja Boy (unofficially, thus the controversy). Grande’s screwed-up tattoo is supposed to read “7 Rings”; her Japanese tutor is not amused that you’re amused.

The strangest part of all of this might be that Ariana Grande has a new record at all. Her fourth album, Sweetener, dropped in August 2018 with its own modest hits (“No Tears Left to Cry” caught some surprising ears) and its own juicy narratives. (Namely, her brief and tumultuous engagement to Davidson, which culminated not in a wedding, but in the popularization of the phrase “BDE.”) The modern-pop-star thing to do was flog Sweetener for the next two years at least, the sort of slo-mo, scorched-earth album cycle that makes the likes of Taylor Swift and Nicki Minaj ubiquitous and/or insufferable. “Thank U, Next” arguably stepped on the rollout for Sweetener’s third and best single, “Breathin,” but a post-breakup Davidson was getting awfully sassy, and Grande felt justifiably obligated to respond, and just so happened to do so via one of the best songs of the year. A new album cycle—and publicity cycle, and life cycle—had begun, far ahead of schedule.

Chatting with Billboard in late 2018 while accepting their award for Woman of the Year, Grande laid out her new philosophy:

“My dream has always been to be—obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day, and all this shit. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to fucking talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’ So I do and I did and I am, and I will continue to.”

The most important phrases here are (3) “bruh”; (2) “obviously not a rapper, but”; and (1) “the way these boys do.” Thank U, Next is her DGAF album, her Self-Care album, her Reclaiming My Time album … pick your corny T-shirt slogan. To put it in Radiohead-based terms many of Grande’s biggest (and youngest) fans would find antiquated and hilarious, it is the Amnesiac to her Kid A, the brusque and thrilling rush-follow-up to her artiest and loftiest album yet. (Sweetener is often quite spacey and beautiful, but it’s got a lot of aimless Pharrell production dating back to his bizarre “I’ve never heard any music like Maggie Rogers before” phase, and in general it feels like a palatial bounce house unmoored by a tornado.) There is an immediacy and audacity to Thank U, Next, a live-streamed volatility that feels far less calculated than your average major-pop-star release; if nothing else, she gave herself far less time in which to calculate.

The T-shirt slogan Grande picked, by the way, was “Little Bit Needy,” an Easter egg from the “Thank U, Next” video that winked at one of this new record’s other extremely great songs.

“Needy” is an odd choice for track two of one’s DGAF album, but again: fluid situation. “I’ma scream and shout for what I love / Passionate but I don’t give no fucks,” Grande moans over airy keyboards and finger-snaps. “I admit that I’m a li’l messed up / But I can hide it when I’m all dressed up.” She sounds deeply wounded and still in total command, and when she sings something like “You can go ahead and call me selfish / But after all this damage I can’t help it,” there is a grim authority to it, given the public nature of much of that damage. It’s a reminder of how often we have watched this person mourn in public, from Miller’s shocking death in September 2018 to the terrorist attack at a Grande arena show in Manchester, England, in 2017. “Needy” is a power ballad that derives much of its power from its relative restraint, but when she wails, “Tell me how good it feels to be needed,” the payoff is massive, the real-world jolt undeniable.

Grande has the lithe, wordy cadence of an exuberant theater kid crossed with the daunting swagger of one of those boy rappers who get to release new music whenever they want; her career so far has a contrived but very satisfying Good Girl Gone Bad arc. Her debut album, 2013’s Yours Truly, mixed ’90s R&B with precocious ’50s doo-wop in a blatant attempt to drink Mariah Carey’s milkshake; the lows were frighteningly low, but her range, vocal and otherwise, could sneak up on you. The conventional wisdom is that “Love Me Harder,” her moody duet with the Weeknd on 2014’s My Everything, is the song that transformed Mr. Weeknd from a goth-R&B scuzzball into a laundered pop phenomenon, but it worked the same trick for Grande in reverse, roughing up and darkening her sound such that she could credibly name her next album Dangerous Woman.

Consequently, on Thank U, Next, she’s got both the skill and the audacity to try anything, slip on any guise, reach for any classic sample. Like, say, Wendy Rene’s Stax classic “After Laughter (Comes Tears),” the backbone of Wu-Tang Clan’s pulverizing “Tearz” and, now, the driving force behind Grande’s “Fake Smile,” a less pulverizing but memorably sultry anti-fame lament with a jaunty chorus of “Fuck a fake smile.”

“Bad Idea” has a gloomy pop-punk guitar riff and a chopped-and-screwed breakdown; “Make Up” is a woozy reggae-lite sketch that pushes uneasily into Rihanna territory, raunchy and just a touch unwise. “7 Rings” has started some uncomfortable arguments over what, exactly, Grande can get away with, and whose swagger she can jack to deliver a line like “You like / My hair / Gee thanks / Just bought it.” (“Ain’t that the li’l song I made about brown women and their hair?” snarked the rapper Princess Nokia. “Hmmm... sounds about white.”) But the song, like “Thank U, Next” itself, is a smash, and Grande is using it to pick a few fights of her own; most recently, she’s the latest pop star to realize that the Grammys need her far more than she needs them.

The other way to enjoy Thank U, Next, of course, is to match the song to the famous ex, Taylor Swift–style. By Friday afternoon you could find detailed breakdowns of all the supposed references to Miller and Davidson on this album, with “In My Head” as ground zero: “I thought that you were the one,” the chorus goes, “But it was all in my head,” that last word an anguished, 10-syllable spiral heavenward. “Ghostin” might be about both men: “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again, over him,” the chorus begins, over a drumless torch-song smear that strikes some fans as a loose interpretation of Miller’s “2009.” It takes a little squinting to get there, but plenty of people are willing to put in the work. Close reads like this get a little gossipy, but from the title track on down, Thank U, Next invites all of it: your fascination, your skepticism, your privacy-invading curiosity, your discomfort, your titillation.

The last track on this album is a trap-pop goof with the extremely delightful title “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.” The video premiered Friday morning as well; I will not spoil the Big Twist, but you’ll figure it out long before it happens. Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the inevitable think pieces about whether Grande should be allowed to encroach on that particular culture, also, but the outrage cycle is just another cycle for her to reset at her leisure, another weapon at her disposal. The commotion around her is getting louder, and messier, and faster as her music gets bigger, and often better. That is not a coincidence, and even if some balance eventually tips and it gets to be a real problem, it’s hardly a problem she invented. The boys, after all, do it all the time.