While Sweetener insists that there was nothing that couldn’t be endured, Thank U, Next offers an amendment, a reality check. The bulk of the album came together in a matter of weeks last year, fueled by “feminine energy and champagne and music and laughter and crying,” as Grande explained in a recent Billboard cover story. She described the 12 songs that make up the record as both life-saving work and deeply collaborative efforts created during post-Davidson nights in the studio with friends. Trap beats, finger snaps and ghostly, off-kilter sounds -- the bulk of which were produced by longtime collaborators Tommy Brown and Max Martin -- wobble beneath Grande’s newly precise enunciation. Often, it feels as though she’s on the verge of slipping into the pop-song Upside Down, which couldn’t be further from the blush of new love and the bounce of Pharrell Williams’s Bop-It! production that permeates Sweetener. It’s a natural fit for both Grande’s voice, which has never sounded more natural or effortless as she drops one Instagram-caption-worthy lyric after another, as well as her subject matter.
Yet while there’s a darkness dogging Thank U, Next, it’s never overwhelming or oppressive, partly thanks to the humor that Grande winds into songs so well. “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” absolutely lives up to its title and even offers a Shyamalanian twist in its video. (Spoiler alert: It turns out that both the “girlfriend” and the “I” of the title were Grande all along). “Needy” unfolds like a one-way text conversation (“Sorry if I'm up and down a lot/ Sorry that I think I'm not enough/ And sorry if I say sorry way too much”) and leads right into “NASA,” a song about needing space to decompress and a chance to miss the other person.
Songs ricochet between moods -- I’m needy! I need space! I’m sad! I’m horny! -- which feels almost rebellious considering how often pop culture and pop music treat women’s emotions as fickle and contradictory, like obstacles that need to be deciphered and worked around. In taking this approach, Grande offers a new model for what pop empowerment anthems can look like, skipping gang-vocal choruses and cliches about triumph and instead making her vulnerabilities bare with little adornment and disarming candor. (Between the unrelenting strut of “Bloodline,” the propulsive bounce of “NASA” and the title track that launched a thousand memes, however, there’s no shortage of bops.)
Still, none of that quite prepares you for the emotional blow that is “Ghostin.” Over watery synths and a hard-not-to-read-into sample of Mac Miller’s “2009,” Grande’s words paint a devastating scene about, in her words, “feeling badly for the person you're with bc you love somebody else” -- and the blanks fill in themselves. It’s a gentle handling of a fragile situation, cushioned by swelling strings and heavenly harmonies that turn it into a real lump-in-your-throat kind of song. And whether through a pure coincidence of sequencing or another sly wink, “Ghostin” precedes another sucker punch, “In My Head,” in which Grande sings about a partner who doesn’t live up to the idealized projection in her head in a way that, if not inviting it directly, certainly doesn’t shy away from the scrutiny and speculation that will inevitably accompany these songs. (If you happen to be Davidson, you might not be particularly thrilled with a line like, “Look at you, boy, I invented you.”)
As with Sweetener, it’s almost impossible to detach Grande’s own circumstances from these songs, but the different ways she conforms to those expectations only makes listening to both bodies of work a deeper experience. Thank U, Next doesn’t negate or replace its predecessor, but it does re-contextualize it, reframing it as just one chapter of a story that is still being told. The albums are linked by more than just Thank U, Next’s short gestation time: The polish of Sweetener makes the sweat and grime of Thank U, Next feel more visceral, and the storm clouds of Thank U, Next make the more fantastical parts Sweetener even more pleasant to inhabit. You can submit yourself to its cheer completely, knowing the other shoe will drop later.
In recent months, Grande has talked about her dislike of the concept of the pop-star “eras” -- that each studio album must be a standalone project with its own narrative that neatly ends where the next one begins. A more fluid release model is a better outlet for her prolific creativity, she’s explained, and it pushes back against antiquated notions about how a pop star must be packaged and commodified: if rappers can drop albums and mixtapes freely in the span of a few months, why can’t she? But as Sweetener and Thank U, Next show, this approach offers more than just a greater volumes of material -- it can enhance the very art she’s making by putting the songs in dialogue with each other and the meta conversations around them. By not closing the book on Sweetener, Grande shows she has a richer story to tell.