On Ariana Grande’s ‘Positions,’ Intimacy Is a Topic and an Aesthetic

In a recent interview with the radio personality Zach Sang, Ariana Grande described the moment she and one of her writing collaborators first listened to part of the instrumental track that would become “34+35,” the second song on her new album, “Positions.” “We heard the strings that sounded so Disney and orchestral and full and pure,” she said. “And I was just like, Yo, what is the dirtiest possible, most opposing lyric that we could write to this?”

They came up with an airy hook centered around that titular math problem, which adds up to a lascivious wink. (Nice.) Like the best songs on her previous album, “Thank U, Next,” “34+35” shares a light, inside-jokey intimacy with its listener; it’s full of Grande’s conspiratorial giggles and whispered secrets.

But it also contains a few new flourishes: theatrical, plucked strings that do not evoke grandeur so much as the creep of mischievous cartoon characters; unapologetically and sometimes humorously libidinous lyrics; and occasional slips of vulnerability that reveal the giddiness and anxiety of new love.

As the follow-up to the record that subtly reframed Grande’s persona and release strategy, “Positions” has some big Gucci tennis shoes to fill. The implicit argument of “Thank U Next” — a less polished and more quickly made album that Grande put out less than six months after her more carefully orchestrated 2018 LP, “Sweetener” — was that the meticulously planned, reflexively world-toured Big Pop Album had become too slow and impersonal a delivery system for a digital-era pop star to express herself with any semblance of authenticity or timeliness. This was particularly true for Grande, now 27, who endured two life-changing events in the months after “Sweetener” came out: the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, and the dissolution of her engagement to the comedian Pete Davidson.

“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” Grande explained in a December 2018 interview, while she was working on the album. It was a winningly reformist approach if not an outright revolutionary one: to turn the pop record into something more like a mixtape than a multiplatform corporate product launch — all the better to swiftly deliver songs that could seem like status updates.

With its text-speak song titles and air of relative idiosyncrasy, “Positions” continues in that direction. But it also gestures toward Grande’s earlier, more traditional past. Its R&B leanings (like the twinkling, ’90s-nostalgic closer, “POV,” or the understated “West Side,” which samples Aalyiah’s “One in a Million”) imagine a more mature update of Grande’s 2013 debut, “Yours Truly.” “Off the Table,” a slinky, searching duet with the Weeknd, even name-checks their collaboration from Grande’s pop 2014 breakout “My Everything”: “I can love you harder than I did before.”

While “Thank U Next” emphasized hip-hop cadences, “Positions” largely finds Grande exploring her full vocal range, from those whistle notes to the low croon she employs on “Safety Net,” a moody ballad that finds her trading verses with Ty Dolla Sign. Both the Weeknd and Ty Dolla Sign collaborations, though, feel more like demure throwbacks, and show that Grande hasn’t quite figured out how to update her approach to balladry with the same fresh, personable energy that enlivens her more upbeat tunes.

She fares better with a house beat (as on the weightless highlight “Motive,” which features production by Murda Beatz, or the disco-inflected “Love Language”), which allows her to capitalize on one of her breathy voice’s greatest strengths: its uncanny ability to make a song feel like it’s hovering just a few inches off the ground. The sumptuous manifestation anthem “Just Like Magic” makes this Good Witch energy explicit. “Middle finger to my thumb and then I snap it,” she sings — a clever lyric in the way it thwarts expectation by moving from saucy to sweet.

“Positions” isn’t quite the reinvention that “Thank U Next” was, but it continues Grande’s effort to make the mainstream pop album a looser, weirder and more conversational space. Some of the credit for that atmosphere should also go to Victoria Monet and Tayla Parx, two of Grande’s closest friends, who have been writing with her since “Yours Truly.” On Grande’s most distinct songs, their bestie chemistry is palpable.

Many pop stars attempt to take their sound to the next level by making increasingly grand and bombastic big-tent statements. Grande has succeeded largely by doing just the opposite: turning her music into an atmosphere as intimate as her bedroom, a place where she’s sometimes entertaining a lover but just as often cracking goofy jokes with her closest friends.

Ariana Grande

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