Ariana Grande, #2 album of 2019 according to Billboard magazine
Ariana is a frustrating creature for me. She’s a gifted vocalist with a great sense of humor and a hammy self-awareness. Somehow, though, her music never fulfills the potential of these potent ingredients.
You can tell that Ariana really wants to share her personal feelings. The title track “thank u, next,” and “needy,” among others, are classic pop confessionals that should make us cry, empathize, and want to hug her. And yet, most of it doesn’t quite gel for me.
I read somewhere that people often become gym bunnies in order to build a literal physical armor to protect them from the world and hide their vulnerabilities. I feel that Ariana does the same with her voice. Instead of using her gifts to let us into her world, she tends to throw her smoky, towering voice full-force against the recording studio wall with indiscriminate power, obliterating any hope of genuine connection with the listener.
My homework for Ariana is to binge-listen to Mariah Carey and Beyonce albums until she internalizes their vocal philosophy. Both know how to showcase their vocals by thoughtfully modulating their tone and volume, and by playing nice with their conversational, hip-hop-tinged lyrics. Ari has come to embrace all of these things in theory, but the execution is flat. Too often she defaults to one of two fallbacks: a sassy, talky sing-song or a flat belt. Her singing sounds great but is mostly unthoughtful.
That being said, Thank U, Next is a noteworthy album. For all of my critical notes, Ari’s voice is indeed gorgeous, and the production is crisp, polished, and sometimes clever. She co-wrote most of the album, and it’s exciting to think about the amount of room she has to grow as a songwriter.
The clear highlight of the album for me, where she shows she can push past the unthoughtful vocal gymnastics, is “ghostin,” a song so tender and vulnerable that I spontaneously began crying less than a minute into the run time. In the song she chronicles her dejection at disappointing her current lover by constantly thinking about her ex. Her well-chronicled relationship with the late Mac Miller definitely adds a layer of devastation to lines like “He just comes to visit me / When I’m dreaming every now and then.”
If Ariana can channel the amount of heart she poured into that song into her broader catalog, she will truly be a dangerous woman.