Both the strengths and flaws of Thank U, Next stem from a sense that, with just a few months to make an album, a brash attitude and the appearance of honesty are really all that matter. Which is not to slight the music, created by Grande with the seasoned smash-makers Max Martin, TB Hits, and Pop Wansel, as well as with younger songwriters in her posse, such as Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét. Again and again, the team alloys Grande’s old tools—toy-box chimes, cutesy background refrains, satiny whispers and yodels—with stainless steel. The poignant opener, “Imagine,” for example, revisits her first flirtations with the now-deceased Mac Miller, using dreamy waltz time, airy whistle tone … and gear-grinding clanks. It’s a sandcastle built on rock bottom.
If the instrumentation is distinctive, so are Grande’s vocals, which continue her career-long melding of Broadway-isms, breathiness, and tricky rap imitations. But there’s something locked in, by the book, about the underlying tunes. With Police-like guitars, sludgy trip-hop interludes, and Grande cleverly underplaying her delivery, the Martin-produced “Bad Idea” has the elements of a future-pop breakthrough. Yet it distractingly cops the melody, cadences, and even abject but defiant tone of that Gotye hit from a few years ago, “Somebody That I Used to Know.” Elsewhere, the swirling R&B of “In My Head” slathers on Grande’s tics—including a glass-shattering vocal run in the chorus—without landing a clean, memorable hook.
Yet Grande’s personal edge ensures that even the duller portions of the album will leave a mark. Rewriting mushy clichés with a wary eye, the singer empathizes with an omnipresent “you” but doesn’t ever give up agency to him. On the top-tier bop “NASA,” which evokes Grande’s sonic godmother Mariah Carey without recycling her, she kindly but firmly asks a lover for a night apart. The confessional centerpiece “Ghostin,” all whooshing synths and sad strings, appears to time warp back to her wrenching moment of mourning Miller while trying to stay connected to Davidson. Then there’s “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” whose story line is right in the title. With Grande acknowledging the ugliness of the home-wrecker impulse, the song does a rare thing in pop: It takes a risk.
Still, nothing jolted me like “Bloodline,” that track informing a fling that he’s just not mating material. Martin’s crew conjures fake dancehall, and while cribbing from the Caribbean is certainly an overplayed move for white pop stars (Grande went reggae-lite back on 2016’s “Side to Side”), there’s somehow still a live energy in the song’s horns and pulsing bass. Thank U, Next is generally icy, but this track is hot, and despite the curt dismissal at its core, it actually doesn’t read as bitter. “No need to apologize,” Grande sings: the kind of truth-telling born of neither hurt nor callousness—both of which she has absolutely earned a right to—but mere freedom.
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