Tuesday, February 12, 2019

album review: 'thank u, next' by ariana grande

So as some of you know, I'm currently working on an extended video essay surrounding the separation of art and artist and how especially in the modern social media/tabloid landscape it's a theory that's increasingly unfeasible. Of course, my larger point will be that it was never that feasible to begin with, but you'll have to wait until I release that project in... I'd like to say a month or so before I explain further - just something to think about.

But really, if you're looking for a project that might as well prove my point in block capitals across every fiber of its being, it was the rushed creation and release of the album thank u, next by Ariana Grande, and yes, before even getting into the album directly I'm calling this a rushed job. Not only was sweetener released midway through last year, singles were still in charting circulation. And this was not a case like Taylor Swift's reputation where the album was tanking upon arrival - the singles had staying power and top 10 presence, and the reviews were solid. But like reputation, it was hard to avoid the feeling that thank u, next was being presented as a slice of spin control in the tumult of Ariana Grande's public life, with both the collapse of her engagement to Pete Davidson - which in going back to sweetener and especially the song she titled after him it was so easy to predict - and the tragic passing of Mac Miller, where in both cases Ariana Grande faced the sort of toxic social media backlash that would be hell for anyone. 

Now as I said last year when the song 'thank u, next' was first released, Ariana Grande had a few advantages over Taylor Swift in that she didn't have the insane weight of cultural expectations placed upon her, and that allowed the song and response to be so breezy and magnanimous, a moment of well-timed spin control that seemed to work in her favor. But that is what it was, especially with the inclusion of names which gives the song additional emotional impact and intensity - pull back from that, separate the art from the artist, and the entire track seems flighty and disposable, an underweight fusion of pop, R&B and trap that for an outside observer would make no sense to sit on the top of the Hot 100 for weeks, only made to feel more because Republic is throwing more money than they probably should to make it stick. And if 'imagine' increased those suspicions, '7 rings' confirmed it, along with the cheap, controversy-laden rollout that for an artist and her team so measured and big-budget over the past three albums that felt alarmingly slapdash. Combined with such a quick turnaround time - she's bragged that this album was written in a week and recorded in not much longer - that is actively cannibalizing singles from the previous project... yeah, I'll freely admit I was worried this would be a rush job and not nearly reflect the potential shown on sweetener for the sort of experimentation and emotional maturity that gave that project such promise - was I wrong?

Okay, so let me step back and give you a view into my process. I had heard this album first on Thursday, had hit about a half dozen listens by Friday, and I figured that I had enough material for a review... but I was also aware that said material was a fair bit cooler on this project than anything Ariana has released before, so I decided to take a step back and reconsider, give the album the weekend to sit with me properly. And yet coming back to it now another half dozen listens later... honestly, while I understand her approach a little better and her desire to make something breezy and tossed-off to better fit the streaming era, it can't help but feel like a regression to me. Even if you didn't like the experimentation in the production of sweetener, there was a level of refinement to that album that thank u, next doesn't even attempt, a strange lowering of the stakes that in the moment might feel bigger because Ariana has reached that level of fame but then places it in the context of her larger discography, where it inevitably falls short.

And what's frustrating is that when it comes to sheer vocal ability, Ariana Grande has only sounded better with each album release, nearly entirely shunning the oversold pop belting of early records in favour of increasingly delicate cooing but with sharper diction, spoken delivery that shows off a lot of subtlety, and trap flows that she can at least handle convincingly. And while I'd argue it feels a little more performative than it should - more on this in a bit - it certainly does a good enough job of convincing an audience that this could be an authentic picture of this increasingly brief snapshot of her life. And hell, I'd argue the lyrics kind of get close to that too, in that she seems to be taking the similar tactic as other pop acts making a 'heel turn' in trying to expose her vulnerabilities and human frailties from the desperate angst of 'imagine' to the clinginess of 'needy', from the numbing hookup on a song like 'bad idea' to the inability to accept the reality of her partner's life and choices on 'in my head'. It actually is strikingly reminiscent of a similar numbing approach to pain and overexposure that Taylor Swift took on reputation, but minus the enormous societal weight that suffocated Taylor, Ariana can afford to be flighty and coy, which absolutely can be a better look...

But on some level, it's less compelling, and that's where we really have to dig into the arc and structure of this album. For one, in fitting with the tossed-together feel of the project, any attempt at a narrative and theme feels slipshod, insecurities in a relationship followed by moments where she has to push people away, and while 'NASA' is solid enough, 'bloodline' has the sort of clumsy language choices which could definitely be framed better. Dig a little deeper and you have 'make up' - which, fine, Ariana has a habit going back a few albums now where she overextends the metaphor - but what I found more frustrating was 'ghostin', which feels like her attempt to rewrite Rihanna's 'Unfaithful' made all the more jarring by how it's very obviously referencing Pete Davidson and the late Mac Miller! That's where the larger conversation surrounding how much we can really differentiate this project from the artist behind it comes in, because on the one hand, the song is really only salvaged from being a retread of a bad song conceit because we know the context of her struggles to get over Mac Miller's passing - but if we're going to accept that in kind, we also need to accept the vapidity of '7 rings' or how despite the real turmoil she's experienced just how coy any real confrontation with her vulnerabilities and flaws can feel. And the biggest example of that comes on 'fake smile', a song where Ariana Grande has seen all the bullshit thrown at her the past year and she's done with playing nice - and yet there's something very performative and theatrical about that admission, not only because there's no hint of rawness or real edge to this album or Ariana's delivery, but also because there's no followthrough, and indeed it feels like a deflective play rather than something more real - a shame because otherwise I like the song. And then we have the newest single and arguably her worst to date: 'break up with your girlfriend, i'm bored' - I get now being single and wanting a fresh hookup, but the bored, capricious air of the song cribbing notes from Avril Lavigne circa 2007 of all people is not just the worst possible way to end the album, but it also raises questions of manipulation and immaturity, compromising any sympathy Ariana has built for herself across the album because of what she's been through... because she can get away with it.

And this is where we have to talk about my largest issue with this album: production. And I already know the excuses that will be made: she was clearly taking influence from streaming-accessible hip-hop and trap, she's sliding into mainstream trends and proving that she could do them better, and besides, it was all designed to capture a specific moment and sound, not create something timeless or resonant... and am I the only one who thinks that's a lot of weak excuses for phoning in any sort of refinement to ride a cheap wave of hype because again, she knows she'll get away with it because her fans will buy it? And let's not avoid how Ariana Grande has always struggled to find production that adequately compliments her breathy tone and pop/R&B cadence - because apparently taking lessons from what Mariah Carey did just a few months ago would be too hard or something - and I get that while I liked Pharrell's contributions to sweetener, I was in the minority; but that shouldn't have been an excuse to stop trying! The one kind of inspired choice comes in attempts to fuse in more orchestral elements or vintage elements opposite the trap production on songs like 'imagine', or on the elegance of 'fake smile' or the opulent swell of strings on the outro of 'bad idea' or the accents on 'ghostin' - it mirrors the fusion of ideas and genres she's working on this album, and hell, I was even somewhat onboard with the horns on 'bloodline', even if the production feels incredibly flimsy. But that's a consistent issue of this project, in that the quality of the pickups and choice of tones just feels undercooked, especially in the sharper backing vocals or the places where Ariana's voice just peaks in the mix - which is exactly what you'd expect for a project recorded in a rush where they didn't want to go for more takes to get the mic right, but for someone like Ariana who has such great delivery, it's such a misstep! And there's similar issues with the percussion and beats: I get keeping things in-house if you're rushing, but so much of the trap skitters, hi-hats, and bass lack cleaner fidelity and punch, and if we're being blunt, sound really goddamn cheap - and this isn't like being lo-fi for texture, this sounds like creating stock loops instead of hiring the bigger name producers who could give you something more interesting and textured to work with, and it clashes jarringly with the classical touches! And that's before you get the melodic tones that sound barely on-key like the limp chords behind 'needy', the faux-Beyonce clunker of 'make-up', the pitch-down bassy mumble behind 'in my head', or the ugly horn fidelity on 'bloodline', even despite a decent bass groove and something of a melodic progression there - thanks Max Martin, who I'll also give some credit for the sharper guitar behind 'bad idea'. And that's the exasperating for me: so much of these songs are so heavily reliant upon Ariana Grande's vocal line for a core that the influx of reverb just makes them feel skeletal and undercooked, implying something stripped back and intimate with one breath but also carrying so much more weight and importance with the other...

Which might as well have been the point of all of this. And you know what, for recognizing that vision at least I can give Ariana Grande credit for something of a cohesive sound and structure - for as tossed off and thematically frustrating as this can be, I can see for a specific moment in time within Ariana's career where this can fit in microcosm. And if the general public was treating this like a side-project or career footnote like how Kendrick Lamar seems to treat untitled, unmastered., that would be one thing... but instead Ariana Grande is landing #1 hits, and I worry that the response will convince her and her handlers a quicker, slapdash approach rife with personal drama should be her path going forward, which I'd argue could shorten her career lifespan and short-circuit real artistic development and potential going forward. But again, trying not to judge this based upon what I got, not what I wanted... and that means I'm only just lukewarm on thank u, next, netting a 6/10 from me... but given how ubiquitous I can imagine this'll be for so many people, is there even really a point of recommending it when you're all going to hear it anyway? Eh, Ariana Grande is still an exceptional talent, and as much as she wants to move forward, off of this album I'm right there with her.

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