imagine a New Music Industry for Female Artists: Ariana Grande delivers with “Thank U, Next”

BY KAYLYN LING

What does it take to become the #1 album on iTunes barely five minutes after release? It takes an anthology of lyrical heartache, the angelic voice of Ariana Grande, and a couple of clever tweets. Grande’s fifth studio album “Thank U, Next” has been smashing records and making well-deserved headlines since its highly anticipated release, less than six months after the wild commercial success of her last album, “Sweetener.”

Releasing two full-length studio records in such close proximity to each other is highly uncommon. Most contemporary pop artists take a year or two in between projects, but Grande rushed to Republic Records for the album’s final touches after a blazing-fast two-week recording period. Grande explained her unconventional album rollout in an interview with Billboard Magazine: “My dream has always been…to put out music in the way that a rapper does. I feel like there are certain standards that pop women are held to that men aren’t. We have to do the teaser before the single, then do the single, and wait to do the preorder, and radio has to impact before the video, and we have to do the discount on this day. It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to [expletive] talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’”

Evidently, Grande has worked against the standard set against women in the industry. Dropped without any prior formal announcement, her album’s first single “thank u, next” topped the Billboard Hot 100 and broke the streaming record for most plays in a single day by a female artist on Spotify. To break such records is an impressive feat on its own; these accomplishments become more impressive when one realizes that the album’s only tease were a couple of discreet tweets about upcoming music.

By defying the traditional album rollout sequence, Grande has also demonstrated the tremendous power of social media as a marketing tool. Most, if not all, of the listenership of “Thank U, Next” came from promotion on digital media platforms. By dropping hints on Twitter, releasing snippets of new music via Instagram stories, and liking conspiratorial fan posts, Grande reached millions of people—145 million to be exact, according to her Instagram following as of mid-February. Grande has shown that there is no need for catchy radio ads, expensive billboards or lengthy pre-order cycles, all of which are promotion tactics pushed onto contemporary pop artists.

So does the album deserve its hype? In short, yes, but with a grain of salt.

“Thank U, Next,” full of contagious lyrical hooks and Grande’s trademark vocal ad-libs, is wholly endearing. Coursing through all twelve tracks are veracious narratives full of feminine energy. Every track is cohesive in their sound production and engineering, thanks to Grande’s team of talented collaborators (producers Tommy Brown, Social House, Max Martin, and Ilya Salmanzedah, and clever songwriters Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét, among others). There’s no question that the creative team behind Grande’s emotional passion project of an album was well equipped to craft the record.

One of the stand-out songs, “NASA,” has a playful push and pull of a flirtation gone too far, in which Grande sings about loving someone but needing time apart, so she can get reacquainted with herself. Lyrics like “Just makin’ sure I’m good on my own tonight/ Even though there isn’t nothin’ wrong tonight” speak to the themes of self-love and self-care that resonate throughout the entire album. Most importantly, Grande’s arguably matured view on love doesn’t subtract from the the aural pop glimmer she’s carried since her breakthrough song “Problem.”

Select instrumentation on this record sounds more raw than Grande’s radio-ready bangers, like “Into You.” The infectious trumpet motif in “bloodline” and the gorgeous strings in the latter half of “bad idea” make for great musical moments. The album’s lead track “imagine” employs whistle tones to punctuate a slower, introspective tune. Grande also slips in quirky vocal samples, such as a voice memo of her grandmother critiquing hearing aids in “bloodline,” that color the record with a personal touch.

In comparison to Grande’s past albums, the songwriting is the facet that has improved the most. Lines like “I know you hear me when I cry/ I try to hold it in at night” from the album’s sole ballad “ghostin” are charged with an honest dose of heartache. Songwriter Victoria Monét described the album as “very reflective of how [Ariana] actually deals with pain” on the Zach Sang Show. This record’s sincerity reflects a range of personal tragedies, including a public breakup and the mourning of a best friend. Some lyrics read like a diary, with the most explicitly personal verse belonging to “thank u, next,” which boldly calls out Grande’s past exes by name. The authenticity of this record and “Sweetener” places Grande’s new music in good light for both critic and fan scrutiny.

For all that the album does right, the record does have its weak points. Songs like “make up” and “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” are simpler and less creative in form. For the most part, they find a reliable hook and stick with it, letting Grande’s voice take the reins over looped backgrounds. While these tracks are not distasteful, their simplicity equates forgettability. These songs, while great b-side bops, take away from the album’s holistic musical impact.

Equipped with songs from both “Thank U, Next” and “Sweetener,” Grande will begin a world tour next month in March. If the many successes and surprises of “Thank U, Next” are any indication, this upcoming tour will surely be one to impress. Grande has continued to blaze a new trail for pop women in the music industry with this album, showing that the artist should come first in deciding how and when to release music and demonstrating that authenticity resonates with listeners.

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