Imagine a world where Ariana Grande is one of the most important women in music, an artist going through her golden period, producing work at the height her creativity, and setting a new standard to which her contemporaries must measure up. Now stop imagining, that’s the world we live in now.
With the release of her fifth album, thank u, next — a speedy six months after the excellent Sweetener — Grande steps into the upper echelon of women in pop. She and Cardi B have now broken a long streak of women getting stuck just below the A-list since the 2010s kicked off (apologies to Selena Gomez, Demi Lovato, and Meghan Trainor) while the market mints men as pop superstars like it’s nothing (congrats to Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, and crossover success Drake).
Between the first single, “thank u, next” and the second, “7 Rings,” Grande previewed an album that manages to be both lighter and more self-aware than August’s Sweetener. While Sweetener found Grande processing who she wanted to be and her life’s purpose in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy, the bombing of her Manchester concert, thank u, next finds her just being Ari. On the title track, Grande serves up realness about her love life, managing to name names without being an asshole, just as the quick-churn world of gossip media attempted to devour her flamed-out relationship with Pete Davidson. It’s a master class in taking control of the narrative but also comes across as vulnerable — she sets herself up in one swift move as the head bitch in charge when it comes to tabloids and a relatable human to her fans.
Then we have “7 Rings,” which is currently the No. 1 song in the country. On the surface, it’s a bop celebrating consumer culture, but if you dig deeper this song has layers. Musically, it’s catchy because it’s based on a classic 1959 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical and popularized by Julie Andrews in the 1965 film adaptation of The Sound of Music. It’s unexpected but not unprecedented to mint a pop hit with an old-school Broadway track (just ask Jay Z or Gwen Stefani), but doing it in a minor key, while the pop world lives for the bombast of major chords is a shocker. The element of economic empowerment (she likes it, she sees it, she wants it, she bought it) and is an irresistible lesson: we’re training girls and women to plan to buy their own shit rather than depend on a man for it.
And those aren’t even the best songs on the album.
Standout tracks “imagine” and “bloodline” get at the complexities of finding the kind of relationship you want during the different times in your life, swinging from idealized love to dealing with a breakup and/or fuck boi not quite knowing his place. The song everyone is buzzing over, “ghostin,” is practically a therapy session in song form as Grande deals with the complexities of mourning an ex-boyfriend (Mac Miller) while in a relationship with someone else (Pete Davidson). With “needy” and “makeup,” Grande sings lyrics that trash the “crazy” label attached to women for being self-aware and emotionally intelligent in relationships — while also encouraging them to own their feelings, even the uncomfortable ones.
The track from thank u, next that strikes me as a future legend is “NASA.” It’s a bit of a sleeper, with music that could be mixed into something less lackluster. The lyrics, however, are next-gen “Independent Women, Pt. 1” with a focus more on emotional independence. “"Baby you know time apart is beneficial / It’s like I’m the universe and you be N-A-S-A / Give you the whole world / But imma need space,” she coos.
In so many songs, Grande urges women, with immediacy and specificity, to more forcefully assert their needs in a relationship; she’s normalizing the conversation around emotional autonomy for women. In a world where we’ve long been told we’re a failure without a soulmate, and that the most important or rewarding thing we can be is a mother, Grande offers a grounding message: you are enough.