By Maura Johnston
February 11, 2019 at 08:35 PM EST
Republic Records

Somewhere amidst the Drake dominance and Post Malone prominence of pop’s last 18 male-dominated months, Ariana Grande — the Nickelodeon alum who’s able to leap three octaves in a single breath — became radio’s biggest female star. But thank u, next, Grande’s fifth album, doesn’t have the insufferable swagger that one might expect from a world-beater who’s fresh off two singles debuting at No. 1, and sat out the Grammys and hit No. 1 on the charts in the same weekend. Instead, it’s a lovely, intimate collection that embraces its essential paradox of being both a grand pop statement and a bedroom-pop wonder.

thank u, next came out of a year where Grande was logging as many pixels for her celebrity as she was for her much-streamed fourth album Sweetener, which nabbed the Grammy, her first, for Best Pop Vocal Album on Sunday. Her breakup with the innovative MC Mac Miller in May and whirlwind romance with Saturday Night Live enfant terrible Pete Davidson got paparazzi clicking and tongues wagging; the singles from Sweetener were persistent radio presences, her silvery voice leaping out of speakers with a clear and present daring few other late-2010s hitmakers have matched. The tumult surrounding her — Miller’s death in September, her claim that she was taking a break from music, her split with Davidson — seemed to feed off itself.

Until the first weekend in November, when Grande decided to reclaim her narrative — not through a pointed tweet or Notes-screenshot Instagram post, but with a song. The sparkling  “thank u, next” was a head-on examination of Grande’s past that named names; no need to puzzle over narrative intent with lyrics that showered loving appreciation on Miller and Davidson, as well as Grande’s other exes Big Sean and Ricky Alvarez, by name. Its surprise release and TMZ-ready hook sent it straight to the top of the Hot 100.

thank u, next embraces a vibe of few-holds-barred honesty, its emphasis on sonic softness recalling a spa day designed to heal and strengthen one’s sorest muscles and its guest-free roster reminding the listener of who, exactly, is in charge. The lyrics delight in specificity and the possibility of sending more devoted listeners on allusion scavenger hunts; “Imagine,” which opens the album, is elegiac and longing, its booming bassline snapping Grande’s reminiscing over late-night takeout and Instagram posts into sharply loving focus; “Fake Smile” details the red carpet’s dark side in a way that only the most-photographed stars out there can. Watery synths and trap snares abound, although a couple of string flourishes — a swooping break on the pillowy “Needy,” gently encroaching violins of the dreampop-adjacent “Ghostin” — and the brassy breaks on the sashaying kiss-off “Bloodline” add texture and tension.

Republic Records

The slippery-voiced Grande has always had some issues when it comes to enunciation, although the personal lyrics on thank u, next make it feel at times like a deliberate masking technique. But the breezy blow-off at the center of “NASA,” which has a late-period Mariah Carey vibe and a galaxy-brain twist on the idea of needing room from a suitor, is almost torpedoed by her lackadaisical pronunciation of “Ima need space.” Its puffy-cloud textures and fluttery synths make it at least more pleasant than “7 Rings,” the “My Favorite Things”-nipping ode to raking in the big bucks that turns Grande into a supreme influencer whose inner “savage” is unleashed by the drama she’s endured.

But after the year Grande has had — both in terms of her amassing star capital and enduring personal loss — she’s allowed to put out a self-indulgent song or two. (The other one on thank u, next is “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which out-Veruca Salts “Rings” if only because of its collateral-damage quotient.) On thank u, next, Grande takes the advice she dished out in the Sweetener single “Breathin” to heart, giving herself space to grow by being honest about the ups and downs she’s endured, and using her imperfections not as weapons, but as reasons to love herself more. B+

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