Singles “thank u, next” and “7 rings” granted us early slivers of what the new Ariana Grande album had to offer: bold and jagged, continuously straddling and managing a Grand-Canyon-sized spectrum of reverence and the lack thereof. On one end, there are songs like “ghostin” and “thank u, next”, spellbinding love letters of appreciation and honest examination toward former lovers, notably Mac Miller and Pete Davidson. On the other end, there’s “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored”, whose title basically speaks for itself. Somewhere toward the latter falls “fake smile”, a flagrant dismissal of the practice of forcing a grin for the benefit of other people.
Grande has had an interesting, symbiotic relationship with the rest of the cultural world lately: She sets trends without once looking back, like the “One taught me love/ One taught me patience/ One taught me pain” phenomenon that spread throughout Twitter like wildfire after the release of “thank u, next”. On first glance, the simple and relatable refrain, “Fuck a fake smile,” seems tailored to fit right in with this media-ridden tradition. But the song also illustrates a deeper accomplishment of the album as a whole, which is the honestly rendered process of Grande coming to terms with her emotions. Proclaiming, “After what I been through, I can’t lie,” Grande forsakes in one fell swoop all of the socially expected knots that, in reality, hamper connection: socializing at parties when you’re not in the mood, paying attention to the way you’re represented in media, saying you’re alright and you’re okay with being alone when that’s not actually the case.
She expertly captures the feeling of being overwhelmed with company and attention while feeling honestly alone, and in response, she flicks that feeling away: Fuck it. It might not last, but it’s good to hear, and it feels cathartic enough just to hear someone else say it.
OTHER SONGS WE’RE SPINNING
Sego – “Neon Me Out”
Sego has a bit of everything for everyone on “Neon Me Out”, a wobbly, anthemic piece of alt-rock. Each instrument has an abrasive crunch that transitions well into the chorus’ stadium-sized chants. The vocals are heavily reminiscent of LCD Soundsystem’s debut, a sound that works as well now as it did 15 years ago. —Parker Reed
Khalid feat. Disclosure – “Talk”
For as big as his stage shows are, breakout R&B star Khalid isn’t exactly known for bringing the “bangers,” per say. Which is totally fine, as the self-proclaimed “American Teen” shows us on “Talk”, a trap-kissed collaboration with Disclosure. The English electronic duo gives Khalid the proper push to prove that the right vocals can carry a sleepy beat and make it something to dance to. —Parker Reed
Migos – “Position To Win”
Never underestimate how much hype and energy Migos can effortlessly cram into their songs. The Atlanta trio’s camaraderie is a lethal weapon on this amped-up mission statement on how preparing for success may not always be glamorous, but it does make you prepared for all your future triumphs. –Brad Dountz
Filthy Friends – “Last Chance County”
An R.E.M./Sleater-Kinney supergroup may sound like some dad rock fever dream, but their latest single is too liberating to be mistaken for anything that’s not concrete. Corin Tucker channels her inner Joan Jett to take control of the pure punk savagery the whole band delivers on every note. —Brad Dountz
Avril Lavigne feat. Nicki Minaj – “Dumb Blonde”
If you didn’t think a song could sound unmistakably Avril Lavigne and unmistakably Nicki Minaj at the same time, “Dumb Blonde” is here to prove you wrong: It’s a call to action with a snapping kick-drum beat and unforgivingly confident lyrics, the sort of song that makes you not only give yourself an impromptu pep talk in the nearest sticker-edged mirror, but believe it, too. —Laura Dzubay
LCD Soundsystem – “call the police”
Vocalizing the unspoken chorus of New York City has been one of James Murphy’s most recognizable attributes. This version was wisely recorded at the legendary Electric Lady Studios, so it gives the song the precision of a studio recording, while having the stripped-down sensation of an intimate live show. —Brad Dountz
Maren Morris feat. Brandi Carlile – “Common”
Maren Morris teams up with Brandi Carlile fresh on the heels of the latter’s three Grammy wins, together making for a dynamite force of country ingenuity and sisterly spirit as they tackle the idea of commonality and all the meanings it can carry, healthy and unhealthy alike. —Laura Dzubay
SOAK – “Valentine Shmalentine”
Valentine’s Day can be an existential day for many and SOAK speaks what these people may keep to themselves on such a day. Am I really their valentine if I don’t make it on their Instagram? Is the holiday more about yourself than the ones you love? Does any of that fucking matter? SOAK is here to ponder for us, leaving the answers up to the listener. —Parker Reed
Rex Orange County – “New House”
It’s pretty remarkable how Alex O’ Connor can go from a cozy ballad to a trap mix with almost no warning. That’s just become the standard for the young musician who doesn’t let labels or even genres signify his career trajectory. His unabashed single doesn’t like to stay static for long, and the result lands on most parts of the musical spectrum. —Brad Dountz