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Albums Of The Year: Ariana Grande’s Thank U, Next Was The Rainbow At The End Of Her Shitstorm

She triumphed through a hard-earned real smile on her weirdest, deepest album to date

Before the most gracious breakup song in the world, "Thank U, Next," dropped like a nuclear bomb last November, the earliest taste of Ariana Grande's fifth album arrived via a 45-second Instagram teaser. That black-and-white clip introduced us to "Needy," on which Grande owns up to being "passionate but I don't give no fucks," which is exactly the kind of thing people say when they do, in fact, give a fuck. On the album, "Needy" unravels like a series of self-conscious late-night texts, as Grande sings about the intensity of her feelings, but also her exhaustion of them. Stifling her passion is driving her mad, and revealing them is her only release. The same can be said about the album itself, which is rooted in the urgency of her self-described "damage" and the gutsy decision to put it all out in the open.

In some ways, Thank U, Next feels like it was released a lifetime ago; probably because that now-iconic phrase, and Grande herself, were inescapable at the top of 2019. For the first few weeks of the year, she ruled the charts with the one-two-three punch of her first No. 1 single, "Thank U, Next," the frosty flex anthem "7 Rings," and the flirty, NSYNC-sampling "Break Up with Your Girlfriend, I'm Bored." As the album's February 8 release date approached, it looked like AG5 would be a hit-churning vehicle at best and a hurried cash-in to capitalize on her celebrity at worst. After all, she was just five months removed from the dewy, cathartic Sweetener, which had been almost unanimously christened her best work to date.

Instead, Thank U, Next takes the pop machine and shakes it alive with real, raw growth. Even the format itself is off-kilter, ending with those aforementioned smash hits and opening with tender ballads. Track one, "Imagine," is devastating in its disenchantment, as Grande describes innocent relationship goals ("Stayin' up all night, order me pad thai, then we gon' sleep ‘til noon") before concluding that such happiness can’t possibly be sustained ("Why can't you imagine a world like that?"). Every therapist's wet dream, "Needy," comes next, followed by the springy fan favorite "NASA."

The rest of the album unpacks love, lust, and pain in a metallic pop coating. It's cooler, weirder, and deeper than Sweetener, and manages to make that project look shockingly surface-level. Artists often like to tout their new music with the banal claim that it's their "most personal yet," but in the case of Thank U, Next, that’s simply fact. Take "Fake Smile," which sounds like Grande's current motto. It's not as explicit as "Thank U, Next" in terms of name-dropping, but it tells us more about her life than we'd ever heard before. "I won't say I'm feeling fine / After what I've been through I can't lie," she belts, before defiantly sticking up the middle finger: "Fuck a fake smile."

Equally intimate is the double whammy of "Ghostin" and "In My Head," widely presumed to chronicle her relationships with late ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and ex-fiancé Pete Davidson, respectively. Neither song made the set list for Grande's most recent tour, and she's hinted that it's because they're too personal to perform; a side effect of writing about her super specific pain in a universal but emotionally taxing way. As she told Vogue about that conflict, "It's hard to sing songs that are about wounds that are so fresh. It's fun, it's pop music, but these songs to me really do represent some heavy shit."

Processing all that "heavy shit" and turning it into a fully formed, filler-free body of work meant tossing the pop star rulebook out the window and making music how she wanted, when she wanted, and, vitally, with whom she wanted. There are no guest features on Thank U, Next and no marquee producers like Sweetener's Pharrell and Max Martin. The album was recorded in a two-week stretch at the end of 2018, in the wake of some personal chaos for Grande, who retreated to her chosen places of comfort: recording studios and the arms of her closest friends.

The result is an emotionally complex album that reflects not only her state of mind, but also her support system. Together, she and her friends molded Thank U, Next into the rainbow at the end of Grande's shitstorm; the light that made sense of everything the darkness stole. That it became the most successful pop album of the year — leading to a massive world tour, a headlining Coachella performance, and five 2020 Grammy nominations — only sweetens the deal. Overthinking with her heart and unloading her emotions into this music can't fully heal Grande or turn her right side up (just look at the album cover), but it seemed to help her find the ground beneath her feet in 2019. As she herself said, she's "still upside-down but kinda fucks with it." Now, on to the next.

Find all of MTV News's 2019 Albums of the Year right here.