From her signature high ponytail to pastel baby doll dresses and diamond chokers, Ariana Grande’s hyperfeminine image has always attracted controversy.
She first hit the radio in 2013 with one of the most underrated bops of the 2010s, "The Way." Ever since, her persona has frequently been dismissed as oversexualized and juvenile. The latest criticism: accusations of cultural appropriation. But today the singer with an affinity for licking lollipops (and formerly donuts) while wearing oversized sweaters is anything but childish. How could she be after surviving a terrorist bombing at her concert in Manchester only for her ex-boyfriend and rapper Mac Miller to die of a drug overdose a year and a half later?
It comes as no surprise then that her fifth album Thank U, Next is her most autobiographical. She kicked off her latest era by releasing the eponymous lead track shortly after a very public breakup with Saturday Night Live comedian and original bearer of BDE, Pete Davidson. The song's music video—a four-part ode to her favorite romantic comedies—broke YouTube’s 24-hour viewing record and became a spiritual mantra for grieving. It's still the strongest track on its namesake album. But in moving forward—this is her second album in sixth months—Grande hasn’t lost herself. She’s just grown up, and is better off for it.
In the aforementioned video, Grande cosplays as famous cinematic go-getters Regina George (Mean Girls), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), Jenna Rink (13 Going on 30) and Torrance Shipman (Bring It On). The full-length album, which dropped on Friday, reveals that it is among this cohort of sweetly sinister women that Grande, after nearly two years of public trauma, now lives: hyperfeminine yet in charge.
Her closing track, the playful “Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” displays the oddball romanticism she’s become known for. After a 12-track lineup of emotion-driven tracks, Grande gets quippy and encourages a potential boo to end things with his girl. She even samples boy band *NSYNC’s “It Makes Me Ill.” “You could say I’m hatin’ if you want to / But I only hate on her ‘cause I want you,” she croons over another mid-tempo beat. Grande knows what she wants but she’s gonna execute with class.
A prolific tweeter, Grande is an open book to her fans, but her music hasn’t always followed suit. Six months ago, she proclaimed love for her then-new fiancé in the song titled, “Pete Davidson.” But while her Sweetener album might've helped her meet criteria as a gay icon (spend time as the top pop star, live your private life very publicly and get engaged to a fellow celebrity), the summer tracks were little more than new entries into her mostly beat-driven love song catalog.
Thank U, Next is different. Namely, less bops, more rapping and leaning further yet into R&B. The days of power-pop jams “Break Free” and “Problem” are gone, traded for soulful, hip-hop tunes “Make Up” and “NASA.” The latter also shows an improved lyricism: “You don’t wanna leave me, but I’m tryna self-discover / Keep me in your orbit and you know you’ll drag me under,” Grande pleads to her man, asking for literal space.
She’s on her own journey. But more openly than ever, she’s bringing us along. Grande has spent the last few weeks candidly explaining what her new songs are about on Twitter. “Imagine” is about “a simple, beautiful love that is now (and forever) unattainable,” while “Bloodline” laments the struggle of loving someone but “not enough to have them in your bloodline.” The hauntingly beautiful “Ghostin” tells of how she processed Miller’s death while engaged to Davidson, “feeling badly [because] he can tell he can’t compare.” If nothing else, Thank U, Next shows what it's like to emotionally heal in real time.
For a star belittled early in her career as a Mariah Carey wannabe, Grande’s career has mirrored another princess of pop to an unexpected degree. By age 25, both Britney Spears and Grande had starred on hit teen TV shows, racked up numerous Grammy nominations, faced very public breakups and not-so-secretly battled family members. But while Spears (unsuccessfully) tried adhering to her “Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” persona amid severe personal crises, Grande is speaking out on her struggles.
On “Needy,” Grande admits, “Lately I’ve been on a rollercoaster / Tryin’ to get ahold of my emotions.” Within her latest shift inward, Grande is exerting radical softness. Poet Lora Mathis, who coined the term, argues overt emotional expression is political, “a way to combat the societal idea that feelings are a sign of weakness.” And if her star track “7 Rings” is any indicator, Grande’s isn’t afraid to say the past two years have changed her: “a sad b-tch / Who woulda thought it'd turn me to a savage?”
Grande has finally revealed what’s really behind that black bunny mask she captured the world with years ago: a not-so-sweet Dangerous Woman standing with battle scars, a high pony and a whistle tone at the ready.