thank u, next finds Grande coping with tragedy.
It’s no secret that the details of Ariana Grande’s personal life are central to thank u, next, a collection of songs that finds her coping with tragedy through reflection, self-care and time with friends. On the contemplative side is “ghostin,” the album’s most direct confrontation with the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and the subsequent dissolution of her engagement to Pete Davidson. “I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again/ Over him,” Grande sings, aware that listeners will have no trouble identifying the one she’s mourning or the one who’s heartbroken.
Other songs on the album find Grande trying to move on by taking time for herself (“NASA,” “bloodline”) or by literally luxuriating in friendship (“7 rings”). The absence of guest appearances on the album emphasizes that she’s taking a deep dive into her own headspace, especially since Grande’s albums up to this point have relied heavily on artists ranging from A$AP Ferg to Zedd.
Still, thank u, next brims with samples and references used in unexpected and fascinating ways. The tour-de-force in this regard is “fake smile,” which incorporates several musical elements from Wendy Rene’s “After Laughter (Comes Tears).” This song, located right near the middle of the album, uses keys and the sample’s organ riff to work towards the chorus, where the instrumentation gloriously drops out to reveal looping vocals from the original track and Grande singing, “Fuck a fake smile.” It’s an incredible moment, one that rethinks Rene’s lyrics to imagine laughter and tears as simultaneous rather than separate experiences.
thank u, next also leans heavily on contemporary hip-hop for inspiration, most exuberantly on “in my head.” There’s no sample from a specific song here, but it nods respectfully to Migos-style ad-libs, which Grande patiently waits to deploy until the end of each chorus. “It was all in my head,” she sings, her vocals soaring over thrumming bass before a pause and then—in the near-silence—a melodic “skrrt skrrt.” It’s an oddly peaceful yet purposely hilarious musical decision, one that conjures an image of Grande driving off from past mistakes in a diamond-crusted Little Tikes Cozy Coupe.
The influence of hip-hop over the album doesn’t stop there. There’s another “skrrt” and a reference to drip on album opener “imagine,” and Grande’s buoyant vocal delivery sometimes veers towards rapping on tracks like “bad idea” and “make up.” This is nothing new in terms of Ariana Grande’s own music or popular music in general, but it does have deeply troubling consequences for “7 rings,” where Grande’s flow both sounds a hell of a lot like Princess Nokia’s on “Mine” and completely ignores that song’s culturally specific message. The moment is brief but uncomfortable enough to make you wish that Grande and her team had taken more time to give credit where credit is due before releasing the album.
As the title track on thank u, next highlights, our connections with others shape and enlighten us. The same goes for the connections we form with the music we hear and love. One gets the sense that Grande has a real appreciation for the hip-hop, pop, and R&B that are the lifeblood of her music, an appreciation meaningful enough for the potent energy of those genres to help her both grieve and endure. The album’s glow is most brilliant when Grande and her team acknowledge these sources directly and thoughtfully, unveiling dazzling possibilities for the impact of music on even the most private facets of our lives.