When Tate McRae broke through in 2020 with the brooding bedroom pop of her debut single “You Broke Me First,” the then-17 year-old Canadian singer stormed TikTok with such an innate understanding of how other teenagers were consuming music that RCA Records didn’t just sign her, they restructured their marketing strategy around her. But the formula behind that initial success— a combination of original dances, trend participation, and teaser snippets — hasn’t always worked for her. “She’s All I Wanna Be,” the should-have-been-hit from her 2022 debut album I Used to Think I Could Fly swapped her sad-girl appeal for an overcharged pop-rock sound that didn’t really take hold with her initial fans. And “Uh Oh,” the promising 2022 follow-up single to her first album, fared so poorly that it didn’t even make it onto the tracklist for her second, the just-out Think Later.
But with “Greedy,” the lead single off Think Later, McRae, now 20, found just the right mix of addictive melody and fierce attitude— and true to her Calgary roots, she even showed up in the song’s video riding a Zamboni and blazing through choreography from Sean Bankhead in hockey gear. The record is an earworm that channels the spirit of Nelly Furtado’s “Promiscuous” so deeply that you’d assume the fellow Canadian pop star’s name would be listed in the credits. You want her on your team? So does everybody else.
McRae was more selective this time around about which players she’d be hitting the ice with. Only a few of the collaborators from her debut made the cut. Ryan Tedder was recruited as executive producer. A long-time master of the mid-tier pop hit, he crafted Think Later with McRae alongside Amy Allen and Jasper Harris. Greg Kurstin and Max Martin pupil ILYA also appear in the album credits. In the age of unsustainable virality and untouchable mega-stars, McRae has embraced the lost art of pairing an inescapable chorus with a killer music video and excellent choreo. She comes off as a student of old-fashioned pop with a clear understanding of range and malleability, as though the flexibility from her dance background has seeped into her creative mind as well.
“Think Later,” the bass-heavy title track regrettably buried in the album’s second half, cruises in a lane somewhere between the gang vocals of M.I.A.’s 2013 single “Bad Girls” and the swaggering Atlanta attitude of Cherish’s 2006 hit “Do It To It.” In her signature breathy delivery, McRae establishes her core ethos: do it for the plot. “Laughing in the backseat of the black car,” she sings, setting the scene. “It’s not a good night if you don’t take it too far.” Her phone is shut off, drinks are flowing, and hands are wandering. On the electro R&B cut “Run for the Hills,” McRae escapes into a haze of infatuation, considering: “Maybe the danger’s covered by the thrill.” She’ll deal with the consequences later.
There’s a real thematic thread that stretches across the 39-minutes of Think Later, one that highlights the influence McRae wears most plainly on her sleeve: Ariana Grande’s 2019 pop opus, Thank U, Next. That album represented a career-defining shift for Grande as she pulled herself from the rubble of grief, heartbreak, and internal turmoil. Similarly, for McRae, Think Later represents an embrace of anger, cynicism, and feminine authority in response to emotional manipulation and professional struggles. McRae’s sinisterly addictive single “Exes” channels the unapologetic emotional indecision of Grande’s “Bloodline.” On “Hurt My Feelings,” when an ex moves on, the singer whips up her own unhinged homewrecker fantasies to rival “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored.”
And as Grande did on “In My Head,” McRae has a much needed wake-up call on “Grave,” the strongest ballad on Think Later. “I could never make you want you want me like I wanted to be wanted,” she sings. It’s one of the few times across the record that turning down the tempo doesn’t also inadvertently sand down the singer’s most compelling edges. Another is “Messier,” which lives up to its title with a promise of mutually assured destruction, even if its swelling chorus ultimately doesn’t quite reach the heights it feels like it’s building towards. “You’re runnin’ outside, you’re pullin’ my arm/Not sure if my mom would call this love,” she recounts, momentarily embracing the sharp depth she could use more of.
“Calgary” is a safe ode to hometown ghosts, coming-of-age, and people pleasing that rehashes the growing pains she sang about last year, on the single “Chaotic.” Even the Bonnie and Clyde-esque “Guilty Conscience” feels familiar, and in the vein of Olivia Rodrigo’s “Favorite Crime.” Other songs are more compellingly cutting. She gets stabbed in the back twice on the album, first by someone who isn’t a true girl’s girl (“We’re Not Alike”), then by an older figure taking advantage of her innocence (“Want That Too”). She often restrains her anger in the face of betrayal, frequently acknowledging her inability to remove herself from toxic situations — sometimes, she stays because she thinks she’s toxic, too.
These are recurring themes and tropes that emerge across many artists’ catalogs, including some of the greats. Artists like Rodrigo and Grande lean into the hyper-personal. Others take a more hedonistic approach — Dua Lipa, for example, didn’t have a single ballad on Future Notalgia. Finding balance within this dichotomy is the greatest source of tension across Think Later. The songs utilizing the tried and true ballad formula that she presented on earlier songs like “You Broke Me First” and “Feel Like Shit,” mostly falter here. But when she digs deep into the pop-girl playbook, particularly the Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears chapters, you can all but hear the accompanying dance counts.
McRae wears an uncertainty around how much of herself she should be pouring into these songs. Mostly, though, she sounds as if she’s most comfortable veering into the fast lane. “Couple years back, so sensitive, yeah/Movin’ like that gets repetitive, yeah/Singin’ ’bout the same old stupid ass things,” she spits on the album opener “Cut My Hair,” drawing a line between Pop Girl Tate and Sad Girl Tate. After all, she sings, “Sad girl bit got a little boring.”