(Andrew Lipovsky/NBC/NBCU Photobank)
The memory of Mac Miller looms over Ariana Grande's album Thank U, Next, even if he's only explicitly mentioned once. The album was recorded in the space of a few weeks following the release of Sweetener last August and the September death of Miller, whom Grande dated between 2016 and 2018. She calls to him by his real name on the title track: "Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm / 'Cause he was an angel."
In the music space, across all genres, separate narratives exist. The artist creates one via the music itself, and the media creates another. Artists can choose the latter to offer up defining personal details — Janelle Monae declared she was pansexual last year to Rolling Stone, for example — or reveal those directly to fans without the media at all. Where Beyoncé once used a not-so-subtle belly rub at the 2011 VMAs to declare her pregnancy with Blue Ivy, she instead took to Instagram in 2017 to announce her oncoming twins. That same year, rapper iLoveMakonnen came out as gay in a series of (now-deleted) tweets, while Kanye West used the same platform in 2018 to announce a slew of albums and establish a schedule for the impending release window. But there's a third option, too: Artists can unburden themselves directly through their music. For Grande, the Thank U, Next album (and accompanying Sweetener tour, which kicks off March 18 in Albany, New York) represents a chance to to vent, speak her truth, and confess to missing Miller's presence while painting the latest chapter of her story.
There's a fresh fire in her delivery, a confidence that comes from being comfortable enough to express oneself in the parameters of one's art. She's always been adept at exploring her feelings and crafting music that's open and honest — particularly on Sweetener's "Breathin" and "No Tears Left to Cry" — but now, in an age of social media-fueled celebrity transparency that finds fans anxious for responses to her most traumatic experiences, she's working to apply that personal trauma to her music in order to evolve and take command of existing narratives.
Thank U, Next's clean pop tries its best to convince the listener of Grande's newfound freedom spurred by cutting the weight of relationships, but Miller's memory lingers in the background. Two tunes in particular, "Ghostin" and "In My Head," establish the late rapper's presence as more than a one-off mention. "Ghostin" is about sobbing at finality, internalizing the questions that she knows she won't get an answer to. "I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again / Over him / I know that it breaks your heart when I cry again / 'Stead of ghostin' him," she sings. "In My Head" is angrier and finds the singer yearning for another, more innocent version of a lover before he became tainted.
Neither song necessarily calls Miller out by name, but this personal peek into Ariana's head reveals a soft, conflicted soul. She's packing heightened energy here but there's a melancholy air to the proceedings. In the wake of Miller's death, these unnamed mentions and coincidences manifest his memory at multiple turns. The instrumental for "Ghostin" is a cousin of Miller's "2009," and the singer's explanation of the song to a fan on Twitter drew potential parallels to her post-Miller doomed relationship with Pete Davidson. On an LP that's buoyant with radio-ready pop formulas, Miller's presence stands out. As it plays, you realize that this is the first real look at her psyche since Miller's death. It's been a long time coming, but it's deserved too; the roars of angry fans online that blamed her for Miller's death in the immediate aftermath led her to disable commenting on her Instagram posts, and she remained quiet about his passing until nine days later. She would then limit her remembrances to Instagram posts and Twitter replies.
In a November 2018 interview with Billboard, Grande expressed her wish to be freer with her music as a means to establish control, "to drop a record on a Saturday night because you feel like it, and because your heart's going to explode if you don't." That the LP comes so soon after Sweetener – five months and 22 days to be exact – feels like a meaningful way to do this. She also revealed that the entire album was written in a little more than a week and recorded in two. In hip-hop, these kinds of quick-fire releases signal a response to something of personal accord — think Machine Gun Kelly taking aim at Eminem on "Rap Devil" just four days after being dissed on the legendary rapper’s song "Not Alike" in 2018. "My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does," Ariana said.
This method of reclaiming agency has helped artists like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Taylor Swift tell their own stories through their own marquee releases. When the world saw surveillance footage of Solange kicking Jay in an elevator at New York's Standard Hotel in 2014, rumors of infidelity between the Carters rapidly materialized. However, despite the flurry of headlines and speculation, the two never gave an interview or posted about it on social media.
When Lemonade came out two years later, Beyoncé finally wrested control of the conversation: "Sorry," one of the LP's biggest singles, spit in the face of apology but also revealed that Jay-Z allegedly cheated on her. A year later, the legendary rapper released 4:44, an album overflowing with open, honest answers, and private revelations about Beyoncé's health and his own maturity. It also completed the book that Lemonade started, allowing a look into the lives of two famously private artists by taking listeners into their most vulnerable moment.
Taylor Swift, meanwhile, had spent a majority of her career battling her own constructed narrative, one about who she dates and how often. Swift's 2017 album, Reputation, found her reclaiming that narrative. After a simple 2016 Kim Kardashian tweet called Swift's side of her ongoing feud with Kanye West into question, her reputation suffered. And what better way to acknowledge this than by drawing a massive, snake-wrapped arrow at it via the name of her sixth album? The snake became integral in Swift's entire rollout; her merch carried a serpentine theme and her tour itself was devoted to snakes. "A couple of years ago, someone called me a snake on social media, and it caught on," the singer said when kicking off her tour last year. "I wanted to send a message ... that doesn't have to defeat you. It can strengthen you instead."
You hear that resolve not just on Reputation, but on Lemonade, 4:44, and Thank U, Next as well. Grande's ability to power through her own darkness speaks volumes; she mourns on the album, reflects on relationships and pushes for more. Doing this enables her to claim her agency and take control of her narrative. That's what Thank U, Next is about, down to its title. There's a reason why it's a command and not a question.
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