On 14 October, Ariana Grande, arguably the biggest pop star on the planet, took to Twitter to make an announcement. “I can’t wait to give u my album this month,” she mused, announcing her sixth album Positions and sending her 78 million Twitter followers into meltdown. It was a classic Grande move, eschewing the endless teasers and clue-based viral marketing tactics employed by her major label peers in favour of direct communication with a fanbase forever bonded with her by triumph and tragedy.
As honest and open in her music as she is on social media, 2018’s Sweetener album, and its hasty follow up, 2019’s Thank U, Next, both dealt with that tragedy head on. While the former sought hard-won positivity via collective healing after the terrorist attack at Grande’s 2017 Manchester concert, the latter picked apart the demise of her relationship with fiancé Pete Davidson and the death of her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller. Both albums alchemised pain into worldwide hits, including Sweetener’s heartbreak-on-the-dancefloor anthem No Tears Left to Cry, and Thank U, Next’s playful title track (her first US number one single, chart fans).
Both albums also moved her away from a victim narrative that is easily and readily applied to female artists. These were albums that directly tackled unimaginable personal pain, but also looked to transcend it. So where does she go next after laying herself so bare? Interestingly, while Grande—still only 27—has discussed the meanings behind previous songs with fans ahead of their release, this time she decided to allow room for people’s own interpretations. “I would like to tell u as little as possible,” she tweeted in reply to a fan last week, “and for u to enjoy it and experience without being told what to feel or what i was feeling making it all.”
“It’s a looser, more playful collection of 1990s-influenced soul ‘jams’ that could and should soundtrack any romance that’s grown during the awfulness of COVID-19”
Thank U, Next and Positions are also examples of Grande’s desire to step off pop’s treadmill of albums and tours. Even before the pandemic decimated the idea of live shows with audiences, Grande was looking to be more like hip-hop artists who dropped music as and when they felt like it as opposed to relying on ‘eras’ that lasted two to three years. That’s where the more instinctive, mixtape-esque Positions comes in. Created during lockdown, apparently while Grande was getting to know new boyfriend Dalton Gomez in quarantine, it’s a looser, more playful collection of 1990s-influenced soul ‘jams’ that could and should soundtrack any romance that’s grown during the awfulness of COVID-19.
Here are five takeaways from a loved-up album that will put some much-needed shine on to 2020.
Musically, it harks back to her 2013 debut, Yours Truly
Yours Truly introduced Grande as a ponytailed ex-musical-theatre kid with a big voice. It did this via 1990s-throwback soul mixed with a hint of Disney princess cuteness. Over time, as her stock rose, her sound evolved into turbocharged pop via collaborations with super producer Max Martin.
Positions, which leans more towards the soul-inflected work of producer Tommy Brown, recalls a lot of that early sound, but fuses it with much more adult content. The album starts with the self-explanatory Shut Up, a mix of pretty, fluttering strings and admonishing lyrics such as, “You know you sound so dumb” and “How you be using your time, you be so worried about mine” before climaxing with a decadent, Cinderella-at-the-ball outro.
Grande’s having lots of sex, thanks for asking
The adult content doesn’t end there. While Grande’s never shy when singing about desire—2016’s explicit, Nicki Minaj-assisted Side to Side, for example—Positions is perhaps the first time she’s crafted slow slow jams. Second song 34+35, a Netflix-and-chill anthem just in time for winter, sets the tone in gloriously unsubtle terms. “If I put it quite plainly, just give me them babies,” Grande coos at one point, before things get even more obvious on the chorus. If you’re having trouble with the numbers, Grande’s on hand with the answer: “Means I wanna 69 with you, no shit, math class.”
“Throughout, the album’s sonic palette—watery textures, tactile beats, sumptuous backing vocals—feels tailor-made for the bedroom”
The tactile Six Thirty, meanwhile, suggests being in a relationship with Grande involves early morning exercise routines, while things get a bit nasty on, well, Nasty, which recalls regular collaborator Victoria Monét’s seductive mini-album, Jaguar. Throughout, the album’s sonic palette—watery textures, tactile beats, sumptuous backing vocals—feels tailor-made for the bedroom.
It’s like a mood-based mixtape with one big single
Released nine days after her low-key album announcement, the title track is its most immediate moment. It’s not that the rest of the album is full of left-field electronica, it’s just that Positions, the song, feels like a surefire hit from the off. Full of cascading harmonies, a gently percolating beat and a glorious earworm chorus, it may be less of a statement single then, say, Thank U, Next or Problem, but it has a breeziness that hooks you in.
Plus, unlike the majority of the album, it has a tempo that rises above mid-pace, offering Grande plenty of time to strut around the glossy, White House-situated video in vintage-looking Lanvin. There are other potential singles on the album, not least the pulsating, Doja Cat-assisted Motive, but it feels like a mixtape more concerned with setting a mood than producing hits.
Grande’s whistle tone is in full effect
One of the album’s highlights, My Hair, starts with jazzy guitar à la Amy Winehouse’s Frank before settling into a laid-back groove about Grande wanting to be touched. Just as you think the slow-burn track is reaching its apex, Grande unleashes a note so high it could give Mariah Carey chills. It’s not a one-off, either. She then sings the entire “come run your hands through my hair” hook at the same lofty level—a high-wire vocal act that feels close to miraculous.
It ends with a glimmer of hope in a dark year
Despite all the lovely sex, Positions also touches on the fear that comes with plunging head-first into a new relationship. Motive questions a new partner’s, well, motive, while on the drip-feed longing of Off the Table, featuring The Weeknd, she admits to not being “quite yet healed already.”
But, it’s in the closing POV where the two sides of her love life coalesce into what feels like a newfound sense of hope. Over a delicate, finger-click beat and a sighing melody, Grande sings about her dark thoughts subsiding, before reaching a climax on the final chorus as her voice rises into the sky-scraping, “I want to love me the way that you love me.” It feels like a huge moment on an album that often prizes smaller, more delicate ones.