In May, Ariana Grande told Zane Lowe that she didn’t feel comfortable putting out new music during a global pandemic. Several months later, Grande announced via social media, “I can’t wait to give you my album this month,” with no further details, releasing the project on Oct. 30. So what made her change her mind? What statement is inherent to Positions that she couldn’t hold back from making?
The 14-track studio album, Grande’s sixth, and her third in two years, features collaborations with Doja Cat, The Weeknd and Ty Dolla $ign. Positions builds upon the pop sounds of 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s thank u, next while integrating elements of trap, funk and R&B. The new album is an outlet through which Grande celebrates love and intimacy, giving off some serious Dangerous Woman vibes. Although conversations about sex typically happen behind closed doors, Grande puts the subject front and center with Positions.
One can’t help but respect the utter straightforwardness that Grande displays throughout the album, especially on a song like “34+35.” From, “If I put it quite plainly / Just gimme them babies,” to, “Got the neighbors yelling’ ‘Earthquake’ / 4.5 when I make the bed shake,” to the song’s final lines, “34, 35 / Means I wanna 69 with you,” Grande is making no effort to be discreet, instead explicitly owning her sexuality—the album is called Positions, after all. The juxtaposition of beautiful violin sounds and risqué lyrics has become one of Grande’s signature sounds, and it suits her well.
On the album’s title track, the term “positions” can refer to Grande switching positions in bed, as well as switching roles in a relationship. In the accompanying music video, “positions” takes on another meaning: Grande is depicted as the president of the United States, as well as various other figures around the White House, a topical visual play on its title that’s in keeping with the album’s rejection of self-consciousness and reclamation of power. “positions” was the only single released ahead of the full album, and it is one of the catchiest, if not the catchiest, of them all, ensuring Grande’s continued ubiquity all by itself.
In addition to quintessential pop tunes like “positions,” Grande also leans into her R&B side on this album. She draws inspiration from Aaliyah, an artist known for redefining contemporary R&B, pop and hip-hop music: “west side” samples “One in a Million,” from Aaaliyah’s 1996 studio album of the same name. Grande also gives us a slow jam, “my hair,” in which she highlights how embracing your sexuality can also be an act of vulnerability (“Know this ain’t usually me, but I might let it down for ya”). She’s still willing to put herself in that position, though—in fact, she asks for it: “But don’t you be scared / To run your hands through my hair / Baby, ‘cause that’s why it’s there.” (At the end of the song, you hear Grande’s classic Mariah Carey-esque, extremely high-pitched note, which she seldom fails to pull off.)
On “pov,” Grande angelically sings about being in love with someone who loves the parts of you that you don’t love about yourself: “You got more than 20/20, babe / Made of glass, the way you see through me / You know me better than I do / Can’t seem to keep nothing from you / How you touch my soul from the outside / Permeate my ego and my pride.” But love isn’t always simple and easy: “I’ve never been this scared before / Feelings I just can’t ignore / Don’t know if I should fight or fly / But I don’t mind,” she sings on “safety net,” with Ty Dolla $ign’s smooth, distinct tone backing her up. On “off the table” (her second collaboration with The Weeknd, following their 2014 hit “Love Me Harder”), Grande suggests that she is hesitant to dive deep into a relationship, especially after two difficult, very much public breakups. She sings like she fears that love might not be possible for her again, but she wants to try: “If you let me in, I’m ready to give you what I couldn’t before.”
Although she has experienced a lot of highs and lows over the last few years, Grande seems to be at a high point right now, writing songs from a place of newfound wisdom and independence (“All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me”). Despite Grande’s initial hesitation to release an album during these isolating times, ultimately, she decided to put herself out there. With Positions, Grande shows that strength can be found in vulnerability, leaving us with a message that feels particularly resonant right now, when everyone is struggling in one way or another.
Paris Rosenthal, a Chicago native, is an editorial music intern at Paste. You can usually find her listening to music, practicing yoga, writing or organizing. Check out her published work here.