Even by the all-hands-on-deck standards of the late 2010s and early 2020s, Ariana Grande has experienced a lot of low and high points over the last two-and-change years—the death of her onetime boyfriend Mac Miller, public scrutiny of her relationships, sold-out tours, tweetstorms with her legions of fans. She’s also kept busy in the studio, releasing albums, as well as the occasional one-off single, that provide immediate snapshots of who she is right now.
In the middle of October, Grande announced on social media that she’d soon be following up 2018’s lightly funky Sweetener and 2019’s bed-headed thank u, next with another album, her sixth overall. positions, which Grande recorded during lockdown, came out on Friday, and even though Grande couldn’t have possibly anticipated the frenzy that had overtaken pop culture at the end of October 2020, the album winds up being an ideal counterweight to the madness, its forthright attitude, effervescent energy and indelible hooks offering a saucy, danceable respite from the shouting hordes.
Well, maybe Grande did foresee at least some yelling; after all, beginning an album with a song called “shut up” does send a message. It’s a playful celebration of ignoring any gossip, with Grande’s cottony voice accompanied by urgent strings; on the chorus, an ideal snippet for accompanying TikTok videos by creators plagued by critics, she stretches the two-syllable title up and down the scale as strings swoon behind her. It’s a teasing swat, one that shows off Grande’s sense of humor as well as her lithe soprano.
Grande is one of pop’s biggest names—her collaborations with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga have already netted her two chart-topping singles this year—and positions is, accordingly, an event album, complete with October-surprise release strategy and cameo appearances from fellow No. 1 hitmakers The Weeknd and Doja Cat. But like thank u, next before it, the album’s strength comes from its intimate vibe and idiosyncratic worldview, with Grande’s voice turning bedroom calisthenics (gleefully detailed on the giggly “34+35” and the sultry “nasty”) as well as the more mundane aspects of romance (“Whatcha gonna do when I’m bored/ And I wanna play video games at 2 a.m.?” she muses on “six thirty”) into bubbly pop fodder.
Grande’s most potent weapon as a pop star is her ability to make the personal universal; on record, her honesty about her struggles is rocket-fueled by her innate knowledge of what makes a hook undeniable, and those two qualities are all over positions. The haunting “off the table,” a duet with Abel Tesfaye of miserabilist-R&B project The Weeknd, tackles the idea of loving after loss head-on and with grace, with Grande’s anxieties over moving on after “the one” leaves (“Do I sit this one out and wait for the next life?” she sings, her voice seemingly dissolving) getting soothed by Tesfaye’s smooth voice and love-borne generosity (“I’ll wait for you, even though it always feels like I’ll be number two/ To someone you can’t hold anymore,” he croons). The string-laden “pov” and roller-rink-ready “love language” are similarly resonant, with Grande’s vocal performance echoing the soul-opening experiences described in her lyrics.
Other standout tracks bring R&B ideals from the past right into the present. “my hair” is a 2020 reinvention of old-school soul that flips its first verse from a double entendre into an invitation for someone to run their fingers through her tresses. Grande’s whistle range acts as a counterpoint to her understated flirtation, floating above the song’s flinty guitar lines as she revels in revealing a new part of herself to a new person. “motive,” the duet with pop-rapper Doja Cat, rides a thumping groove as Grande picks apart a potential suitor’s reasons for being.
Taken as a whole, positions feels like the culmination of Grande’s nearly 10 years as a recording artist, nodding to elements from her past while presenting an impishly optimistic view of what’s to come. From the opening strings of “shut up,” touches of classic R&B flit in and out, reminiscent of the soul-inspired pop on her 2013 debut Yours Truly; the minimally fuzzy production of tracks like “six thirty” and “obvious” bring to mind the homespun vibes of Grande’s thank u, next era; the starburst synths that dot “just like magic” recall her mid-’10s forays into EDM; and the strenuously sex-positive offerings bring to mind the winking, cat-suited Dangerous Woman years. That all contributes to why it’s a smoothly confident album; even when Grande is singing of self-doubt and uncertainty, she’s fully in her feelings, and knowing that pop can bring a release.