Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Ariana Grande finds her bliss with Positions

Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande
Photo: David Crotty/Patrick McMullan (Getty Images)

In a recent radio interview, pop superstar Ariana Grande discussed the thought process she went through before deciding to release her sixth solo album, Positions, during what’s (to put it mildly) a tumultuous time. “It was hard for me to differentiate between, ‘Is this an inappropriate time to release because of the state of the world?’” she said. “Or, ‘Is this the appropriate time to release because it’s going to make a lot of people feel something bright and something better and be uplifting to people?’”

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After much thought, Grande says she concluded the latter route was best, in no small part because she saw how much her fans needed a boost. “I was like, ‘You know what, everyone is aware of what’s happening—I’m aware of what’s happening—and this is also my job at the end of the day. I know that in my heart this will make a lot of people feel something good.’”

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Over the past few years, Grande has also striven to reorient her own life toward pleasure and happiness. Both 2018s Sweetener and the following year’s Thank U, Next found her reconciling major life trauma (the tragic 2017 Manchester Arena bombing after her concert there, the death of her ex-boyfriend, rapper Mac Miller, from an accidental overdose) via music and lyrics. The results could be heartbreaking—the delicate “Ghostin” in particular seemed to reference Miller—but also led to exhilarating moments: the empowering “No Tears Left To Cry,” kiss-off earworm “thank u, next,” groove-heavy “NASA.” Grande’s art reflected both the challenges and triumphs of moving forward while processing grief.

Positions is the culmination of this difficult emotional work, and, like her previous two efforts, it’s full of relatable nuance. Overall, Grande is in a lighter and even playful mood, a tone set by the opening song, “shut up,” which boasts cascading strings and vibrant vocals that dart around gleefully. Lyrically, the song doubles as a middle finger to her critics—in no uncertain terms, she tells them to mind their own business and stop chastising her life choices—and a reassuring note to anyone still worried about how she’s feeling: “All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me.”

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But underneath this bravado, Positions offers a deeper look at the imperfect process of shedding high-profile baggage and moving on, both in life and love. While the album has unapologetically dirty songs (“34 + 35), skeptical rejoinders (“motive”), and a tune about settling down while preserving your sense of self (the title track), old ghosts still linger: The smoldering, fine-china R&B ballad “off the table” unfolds like a romantic conversation between someone uncertain if she’s ready to commit and an understanding partner (voiced by The Weeknd) who’s willing to wait.

Unsurprisingly, the album’s highlights are the songs where Grande explores the power of vulnerability within the context of a relationship. “my hair” is a slow jam with sultry horns and lyrics that offer forthright seduction: The protagonist asks her partner to “run your hands through my hair,” a symbolic gesture of her willingness to be more open. The piano-accented “love language” is even better—it’s a brisk ’90s R&B throwback with stuttering beats, pirouetting strings, and recognition of common ground: “Teach me how to love you / I’m unlearning what ain’t right.” And the album ends with the lovely “pov,” a meditative ballad that begins with the sound of gentle raindrops, before layering on more subtle sounds—taut snaps, soulful a cappella vocals, quivering strings—to frame lyrics that express insecurities while daring to be optimistic (“I’m getting used to receiving / Still getting good at not leaving”).

Although these orchestral flourishes add a fanciful vibe, and the Lego brick-like way Grande stacks and layers her vocals remains a strength, Positions’ music is cohesive to the point of homogeneity. The musician and her team—which once again includes collaborators such as producer Tommy Brown and songwriters Tayla Parx and Victoria Monét—keep things almost too simple, with minimal trap beats and forgettable production. Positions sounds much fresher when Grande brings in visitors: The Doja Cat-featuring “motive” incorporates a burst of blocky, electro-leaning dancefloor beats, while “safety net” with Ty Dolla $ign is haunting and memorable.

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Ironically for an album whose best tracks feature guest stars, Positions isn’t necessarily about relying on others. Instead, it’s an introspective record where Grande turns her well-earned bravery inward, and is figuring out for herself what happiness looks like after all she’s been through. The heartening thing is she’s in a good place and confidently asserting just what that happiness looks like—and is committed to going with the flow and not overthinking things. Positions isn’t a perfect album (and far from an instant classic in the vein of Sweetener or Thank U, Next), but the LP is a more-than-worthy stepping stone to whatever comes next for the artist.

Cleveland-based writer seen in many places. Fond of dusty record stores, good sushi and R.E.M.

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