thank u, next by Ariana Grande: when a philosophy of self-care is put into action — There isn’t anything novel about a pop star responding to tabloid coverage with a sparkling new album. (And if you think so, Madonna and Britney would like a word.) But there is something heartening about listening to Ariana Grande pick herself up and dust herself off, with a flex and a neck roll. Thanks to a series of personal tragedies—a harrowing proximity to a deadly terrorist attack and, most recently, losing a loved one to opioids and cocaine—Grande has become an avatar for surviving the Trump era for millions of fans. If her warm, eccentric 2018 album, sweetener, was a handbook for self-care and self-actualization, thank u, next, is the case-in-point.
Throughout the set’s 40-some minutes, Grande is invariably confident and assertive, but this thrilling display of empowerment is always underscored by a disarming vulnerability, a frankness which seems to go beyond the social media relatability required of today’s junior pop stars. As for the music itself, it's often heroic. Her superpower, it seems, is not her once-in-a-decade voice. In fact, Grande has toned down the diva showboating in recent outings, somewhat minimizing the obvious and tiresome comparisons to Mariah Carey. What Grande has honed on thank u, next is the way she cunningly interweaves modern r&b patois and beats that brush up against the boundaries of top 40. B PLUS
Future Hndrxx Presents The WZRD by Future: an exhausting mass of utilitarian trap — It’s a cliché at this point to say 20-track albums never justify their length. But I’ll never stop writing that because, 99 out of 100 times, it’s right. And it’s right in the case of The WZRD (or, rather, Future Hndrxx Presents The WZRD). Over-bloated albums have existed as long as albums have, but the problem seems particularly noxious in the age of Spotify—and especially prevalent in hip hop, where flexing over streaming data is a legitimate career choice. (A side effect of equating streaming numbers with quality, I guess.) Future is far from the worst offender of this bottom-line padding practice, but listening to his albums has increasingly become an exercise in selective participation. The WZRD has 11 songs worth thinking about. Maybe 12. In the album-agnostic Wild West of Spotify playlists, this is beside the point. And this is a solid release, when you account for Future’s general lack of a filler filter. These songs are muscular and functional—utilitarian, like a Field record. But where a Field record finds purpose in recursion, in unfurling its loops, The WZRD simply drags along. Future was never quite the artist who could sustain the hour-plus he persistently demands from listeners, and it’s becoming clear that he might not ever get there. C PLUS
Buoys by Panda Bear: unremarkable lonely beach music — On much of Buoys, Noah Lennox, one of the 2000’s leading indie pop innovators, leans into the natural similarities between his singing voice and Brian Wilson’s. Unfortunately, Lennox simultaneously takes a step away from Wilson’s commitment to color, the stuff that makes music worth listening to. Without anything interesting happening here structurally, the strummed songs of Buoys live and die by their melodies. Maybe a handful will be remembered after the final track ends—if that.
The aquatic theme of the album is appropriate and in line with the atmosphere Lennox’s quirky, gentle guitar-plucking consistently evokes. But this, nor the occasional flashes of beauty throughout the album, are enough to recommend Buoys’ unremarkable lonely beach music. A disappointment, considering the breadth of energy and color found in Panda Bear’s solo work and his more adventurous outings with Animal Collective. C PLUS
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