In many ways, Ariana Grande has transcended the category of popstar -- she’s become a symbol, a talisman for people the world over. In the last two years she’s suffered a number of disasters. And she's done it in the public eye. She has met each devastating blow not with stoicism, not with frenzied anger, not with bitterness -- but with a heartbroken, vulnerable honesty. The way she has mourned, made peace with, and processed her grief has resonated so profoundly that she occupies a position closer to our hearts than is perhaps normal for such a young star.
But as we’ve gazed awestruck at her gracious acceptance of tragedy and personal loss, we’ve been left wondering -- is she actually okay? She’s been praised highly for reclaiming the narrative around her suffering through her music -- the single thank u, next simultaneously mourned the death of Mac Miller while transfiguring her pain over Pete Davidson into a mature, optimistic ode to love and the lessons learned from loss. She then announced a new album barely six months after the release of Sweetener. This astonishing industriousness has begged the question; how much of what we’re seeing is paper over the cracks in the supporting wall? Is it all subversion and empowerment? Is there a ‘correct’ way to deal with devastation?
Her real life trajectory has been something along the lines of; tragedy, media storm, single, album, bereavement, media storm, break-up, media storm, single, album -- it's so rushed and frantic and compressed. How have her feelings had room to breathe between each jump in the timeline? Has she just been running scared, churning out music like foam to smother the media inferno?
Today, the release of thank u, next, proved a definitive answer to all those questions. Room to breathe is precisely with Ariana has lacked -- and with this album, she grants it to herself. Rather than creating the album to please the world, she’s created it to remove herself from the world -- she's constructed her own dimension to live in, and it's quiet, empty, stretching out in all directions.
The sense of time and space in the album is cavernous -- we extend our arms in an echo-y chamber where Ariana sits all alone. We can’t feel the walls. If the album has a theme, it’s the indulgence of her own humanity; it’s self-exploration and self-acceptance. This manifests in wildly different forms as you cycle through the songs, as though she's moving slowly through a palatial house and stopping in each high-ceilinged room to examine some part of herself, whether light or dark. The overwhelming tone is of compassionate understanding -- she doesn't judge herself for her fears in needy, and equally gives time to her worst excesses and malice in break up with your girlfriend i'm bored.
The album is the functional and structural inverse of her real-life narrative -- while her life has been choppy, her feelings pinched into the space between each horrible speed bump, in thank u, next she's not rushing, compressing, or restricting herself in any way.
In needy, she combs through her flaws one-by-one, with archaeological slowness, turning them over in a process of cool examination: "good at overthinking with my heart", "I can be needy", "sorry that I think I'm not enough", "sorry if I say sorry way too much", "you can call me selfish"; she lists them surgically. One clear beat is maintained throughout the entire song, never disappearing or changing pace even in the chorus, which is mediated simply by an overlaying of four more slow chords -- its steady, unchanging time-keeping leaves the listener with an overwhelming sense of being in safe hands. The artist emanates a sense of consummate control, of careful self-awareness. Silence is more present in the song than sound -- it is a meditation, vast and pure and glassy, as if her view of herself is utterly un-misted by the critics pressing in on her on all sides. Here, in needy, is the time and space that for so long has been denied to this young woman. She's sitting in an empty room alone and thinking for hours, encased in a bubble of her own energy, the world behind a pane of impenetrable perspex. This expansiveness sets the tone for the entire album.
The sense of infinity compounded in the metronomic pacing of needy is also present in the lyrics of NASA. She riffs on Neil Armstrong’s quote in the opening, evoking the setting of the moon; significantly, it’s a position where she can view the real world from an impartial distance, in solitary bliss. Here, she sets boundaries for her new partner. “I can’t really miss you if I’m with you/ I’ma need space” -- she may as well be saying ‘if I can touch you, you’re too close’. Again, she demands the leeway that has been denied to her. bloodline is similarly to the point: “don’t want you in my bloodline, just wanna have a good time”.
In ghostin we again see one unwavering, sonic scaffold through the whole song -- this time it's an undulating synth that plunges us underwater. Again, she chooses an isolated setting. It's slow and soft, as if she's bobbing on the surface, being held by Mother Nature -- i.e. herself (God is a woman, remember?). "We'll get through this/ we'll get past this", she self-soothes. At the same time, she doesn't suppress her agony over a guy, she lets it all out. "I know it breaks your heart when I cry again/ ‘stead of ghostin' him", she admits.
Even as she caresses and cares for herself, she gives scope to another side of her that wants to indulge in money (7 rings), messy behaviour like cheating (BUWYGIB) and pining after men -- she unleashes her darkest desires in the same space as her more tender reflections, as if she can better understand them by allowing them to run free together. If the gaze of the world has worn Ariana down, here she blooms again, allowing every petal to flourish maximally, indifferent to its moral content. She is all of herself, whether right or wrong. There is as much value in “retail therapy” and of sexual indulgence, as there is in self-reflection -- she doesn’t restrict herself to moral perfection as a route to salvation.
The thank u, next album is a pocket dimension that Ariana conjured up with a click of her fingers -- God really is a woman. It’s an immense universe where she is free to flit between empty rooms, uninhabited planets, luxury stores, clubs, and calm oceans. She’s swimming at night in an endless sea of herself, completely alone. Ariana has transported herself and the listener out of the real world, to a place where there is ample time and space to explore and understand ourselves; to be hurt, to be happy, to heal.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.