Ariana Grande Bounces Back With Swagger on ‘Thank U, Next’

Ariana Grande has had a year of trials and tribulations, suffering the death of her former boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, and the dissolution of her short-lived engagement to comedian Pete Davidson. On last year’s wildly successful “Sweetener,” Grande sounded carefree and confident, in sharp contrast to Miller, whose final album, “Swimming” revealed a tortured soul. She found herself the target of much vitriol from fans of Miller who blamed her for his unfortunate fate. Ever the resilient, strong woman, Grande has not only rebounded, but stunningly managed to deliver a new album, “Thank U, Next,” a mere six months after her last one. Moreover, it’s a thoroughly realized work that shows her further developing her distinctive voice and attitude, with a cohesive, catchy set of songs.

The album’s first track, “Imagine,” is a warm, soulful opener with late eighties, classic R&B stylings matched to crisp, contemporary production. There’s immediately a sentimentality and rose-colored atmosphere that set a markedly different mood from that of Grande’s last record. Certain lines allude to lyrics from Mac Miller’s “Cinderella,” and the song seems to be about Miller. Grande sounds effortlessly poised, mellow and mellifluous, over a beat that develops into a triumphant, string-laden soundscape of pop perfection. Next, “Needy” retreats to a minimal, slightly discordant loop that conveys the sense of being caught on a distant memory, advancing forward but still shrouded in haze. It’s a fitting sound for the subject matter, as Grande confesses,“Lately, I’ve been on a roller coaster / Tryna get a hold of my emotions.” You wouldn’t know it from listening – she sounds strikingly in control of her emotions, throughout the album, with a frivolous ease of manner that can seem a bit callous. On the other hand, the levity of the music is effective relief from the often dark, weighty material. Airy, vintage vocal harmonies and lush strings enter midway, making for a particularly cinematic affair.

“NASA” is an upbeat, effervescent cut, with Grande spelling out the title with playful, old school hip-hop, cartoon intonation. As one might expect, the song is about space – but personal space, rather than outer space.  It continues in the feminist tradition of songs like “God Is a Woman,” a consistent theme of  Grande’s output throughout the years. Grande adjusts Neil Armstrong’s famous words, declaring, “This is one small step for woman / One giant leap for womankind.” Grande isn’t shy about her ego, as she has always made clear with her lyrics. One song from her last record featured the refrain “I’m so successful.” She stays in character here, singing, “It’s like I’m the universe and you’ll be N-A-S-A.”

“Bloodline” delivers a festive, reggae-influenced number with a wonky bassline vaguely reminiscent of SBTRKT’s 2011 dubstep banger “Wildfire.” Grande puts on a new voice and new style, and ends up suddenly sounding very much like Santigold. Lyrically, she remains comfortably self-absorbed, elucidating that she is uninterested in a serious relationship. With her typical bluntness, she asserts, “I ain’t lookin’ for my one true love… That ship sailed away.” If this seems cold, it doesn’t bother Grande, as she clarifies on the following song, “Fake Smile,” insisting “I can’t fake another smile.” It’s a breezy number with some early aughts R&B flavor, and particularly infectious  vocal harmonies. “Bad Idea” hops back a couple decades, fitting a punchy New Wave ditty to stark trap percussion. Grande cheekily proposes a fling, in hopes of rebounding from failed relationships, but warns, “You know this isn’t real / You should know I’m temporary.” It’s an especially catchy tune, with a sing-songy chorus that wryly mocks the jaded sentiment at its core.

“Ghostin’” offers a moment of respite, with a surreal backdrop of fading tones, and atmospheric, reflective vocals. Apparently written about Mac Miller, and for Pete Davidson, it finds Grande, for once, somewhat succumbing to her emotions, confessing,“I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again / ‘Stead of ghostin’ him.” She proceeds to reflect upon past relationships on “In My Heart,” singing, I thought that you were the one / But it was all in my head.” Busy, skittering beats and a looped vocal sample give the song a vaguely trip-hop vibe, and showcase Grande venturing beyond her usual sonic confines. Then, “7 Rings” repurposes the tune of “My Favorite Things” from “The Sound of Music” for hip-hop megalomania. puts on a tinny, ditsy voice, and dresses up the melody with extra melisma, like a pretentious karaoke performer, to an effect that is rather camp. Then the beat changes, and things get unprecedentedly feisty, as Grande chants, “I want it, I got it” like a provocateur of the highest rank. Everything reaches a climax come the title track, on which Grande reminisces upon past relationships, and ultimately concludes stoically, “Thank you, next.” For the final icing on the cake, she brings the album to closure with the outrageously titled, NSYNC-sampling “Break Up With Your Girlfriend. I’m Bored.”

The album’s title and final track, “Thank U, Next” stands out primarily for its audacity of sentiment. There’s a thematic thread of fearless confidence and independence, expressed with a flippant playfulness, and a decidedly feminine spirit that gives it a character of its own. Grande sounds on top of her game throughout the record, and alternates between different R&B subgenres convincingly. Every song is infectious, and the album paints a portrait of confidence, resilience, and swagger.

Thank U, Next” is available Feb. 8 on Apple Music.