Two weeks ago, the singer-songwriter Victoria Monét made a trip to Disneyland with her friend and longtime collaborator Ariana Grande. “We go often, and there are always fans,” Monét says. “But this particular time, she was [like] Michael Jackson. Security was like, ‘no pictures please, thank you,’ and a fan said, ‘thank u, next'” — quoting Grande’s recent Number One single. “People were losing their minds.”
Right now, Grande is as close as most stars get to walking on water: Only two other singers in history, Mariah Carey and Drake, have released consecutive Number One singles in the lead-up to an album, according to Billboard. Grande released Thank U, Next on Friday, and the singer will likely set a personal-best for first-week sales even though this album comes less than six months after her last Number One album, Sweetener. Improbably, Thank U, Next also sounds both more urgent and more varied than its predecessor.
This is all the more remarkable considering that Thank U, Next almost didn’t happen. Following the tragic death of Grande’s ex-boyfriend, the rapper Mac Miller, in September 2018, “there was a point where Ariana didn’t want to do anything,” Monét says. The songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Jameel Roberts was scheduled to go into the studio with Grande to work on the Sweetener follow-up. “When we heard that [Miller died] we weren’t sure those sessions were gonna still be on,” he says.
“She wasn’t gonna tour,” Monét acknowledges. “It was like, ‘the next few months are cancelled, this is really hard for me, I don’t wanna move.'”
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But roughly two weeks after Grande thought about cancelling work, the singer flew to New York to write with another pair of longtime collaborators, Max Martin and Savan Kotecha. Monét flew out not long after. “It goes without saying that it was a very trying time, but music naturally is a healing mechanism,” explains Monét, who co-wrote six tracks on Thank U, Next. “That’s what we were holding on to — along with some champagne glasses.”
“I was still grieving the loss of one of my best friends,” adds Njomza Vitia, a co-writer on both “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” and also the first artist to release music through Miller’s label Remember Music. “It was a good distraction to be in that space [the studio].”
In New York, Grande and company were wildly productive. “The first week we already had nine songs or so,” Monét says. “Then we spent the next week cleaning them up, adding more things, doing production, cutting a few more songs.”
The resulting album stands out from the rest of Grande’s catalog. “You’re used to hearing her singing pop records, maybe a soul-based record,” Roberts explains. “But some of these are really different. She’s stretching.”
Some of those changes are structural. Most modern big-budget albums, including Sweetener, are front-loaded or fat in the middle before tapering off. But Thank U, Next starts quietly, with a trio of ballads, and ends with thunderstorms: “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” steroidal streaming hits, plus “Break up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” which is both mischievous and hammering. Grande has never constructed an album like this before.
Structural idiosyncrasies extend to individual tracks as well. Roberts, who co-wrote “Imagine” and “In My Head” and played instruments, including Alicia Keys’ Fender Rhodes, on “Fake Smile,” expressed surprise that Grande decided to record “Imagine. “It’s in triple meter — you don’t get a lot of those records anymore, especially for a pop singer,” he explains. But Grande made a 6/8 track the first thing you hear on Thank U, Next. “The ‘In My Head’ record, if you put it on, the first thing you hear [a recorded voicemail and a vicious rap beat with a distended bass line], I would never think, ‘this is an Ariana record,'” Roberts continues. “Even on ‘Imagine,’ when she’s singing the whistle tones on the end — she’s growing.”
Then there’s “NASA:” When it comes to capturing relationships, pop tends to sort them into the good vs. the bad, but this track captures a hyper-specific romantic middle zone, using the silly (space-exploration metaphors) to convey the serious (please-don’t-come-over-tonight-but-I-still-like-you). Monét, who started writing the melodies for “NASA” with Tayla Parx, explains the mindset: “We’re not ending this, and you didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just that there is a specific bubble that I’d like to maintain tonight or today on my own. It’s just saying something different, something women need to hear.”
Thank U, Next is also the rare Event Album to be made by a lot of women. Nine of the album’s 12 songs have two or more female writers, which is a first on a Grande project. (Technically another track, “Break up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” has two female writers too, but Kandi Buruss is credited because she co-wrote the old ‘NSync track Grande samples.) For comparison’s sake, less than a quarter of the 36 writers up for a Record of the Year Grammy on Sunday are women.
“A lot of [Grande’s] songs have been male-driven [in terms of her co-writers], but a lot of these songs really have the female perspective — that’s notable,” says Denisia Andrews, a member of the writer-producer duo Nova Wav with Brittany “Chi” Coney. “Chi and I produce, and we were able to add production on the record we worked on [‘In My Head’] as well.”
The close connections between Grande and many of her collaborators — she’s worked with Monét, for example, on every one of her albums — also served as a shield when the circumstances preceding Thank U, Next threatened to become overwhelming. The song “Ghostin” is about being with one partner while still torn over another; the internet was quick to map these characters onto Grande’s recent biography, linking them to Miller and another ex, Pete Davidson. “That [topic] took a lot to just touch on,” Monét says. “It’s a very sensitive subject. You’re trying to be respectful of both parties with the lyrics. It’s a fine line, especially with things being really recent and emotions flying. When [Grande] wanted to pause, she paused. When she wanted to come and turn up, or just talk, we talked.”
When they worked, they worked swiftly — many of the songs on Thank U, Next came in a flurry. “In My Head” took just 12 hours from start to finish, according to Andrews and Coney. With “7 Rings,” “as soon as we decided we were gonna use that melody [“My Favorite Things” from The Sound of Music], words started to fall into place,” says Vitia. “It all happened so fast.” And “NASA” was written that same day.
Now that the album is out, Monét is already planning her next trip to Disneyland. It’s only been a few weeks since her last visit with Grande, but now she has a new goal. “I would really love to hear [‘NASA’ while] on [the ride] Space Mountain,” Monét says. “I’m just gonna have to go in there with headphones.”