Three months after the August 2018 release of Sweetener -- her fourth album, delivered in the wake of the 2017 tragedy at Manchester Arena -- Ariana Grande released "Thank U, Next," a clever pop song celebrating how each ex turned her into a better person. The refrain of "one taught me love, one taught me patience, and one taught me pain" quickly turned "Thank U, Next" into something more than a hit: it was a meme, eating up all the pop-cultural oxygen at the end of 2018, confirming Ariana Grande's position as the pre-eminent pop star of the moment. Like all defining pop stars, Grande's status derived in equal parts from her music and public persona, the latter shaped through the prism of tragedy -- not just the Manchester bombing, but the premature death of her ex Mac Miller -- and that collective consciousness lends weight to Thank U, Next, her swiftly delivered sequel to Sweetener, just as it did its predecessor. The difference with Thank U, Next is this time Grande is swaggering with the confidence that comes with unquestioned stardom. This freedom can be heard in "Thank U, Next," which flips heartbreak into empowerment, and is effectively the keynote for its parent album. Grande does delve into explicit darkness more than she did on Sweetener -- Miller's death haunts the album, specifically surfacing on "Ghosting" -- but she never loses sight that this is a pop album, designed to provide a soundtrack for good times as well as the bad. To this end, Thank U, Next benefits from its quick execution. Conceptually, the album feels slighter than Sweetener, which was designed to be a grand statement, but the loose ends and crass commercial cul-de-sacs scattered throughout Thank U, Next seem human -- perhaps she's appropriating several cultures on "7 Rings," yet its celebration of healing heartbreak through consumerism suits a singer who also urges a crush to break up with a girlfriend just because she's bored. Such sentiments are the product of a singer who not only knows what she wants but knows that she's wanted, and that attitude unites and propels Thank U, Next through its ballads and R&B jams, turning it into an album that embodies every aspect of Ariana Grande, the grand pop star.
AllMusic Review by Stephen Thomas Erlewine