Is Ariana Grande 2020’s answer to Mozart? Her prolific output, near-universal popularity and neat capturing of the zeitgeist would suggest she’s not far off. Readers outraged by such a suggestion could try listening to Positions, released today: the latest record to showcase Grande’s stylistically watertight sound and indisputable vocal abilities. The point is, like Mozart, Grande is a bona fide celebrity artist: one of the elite contemporary mega-stars.
Grande’s two recent albums – Sweetener in 2018 and thank u, next in 2019 – took on greater cultural significance following a series of high-profile personal tragedies: the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and the terrorist attack at her concert in Manchester. Earlier albums presented her as a star, yes, but in a more conventional mould: a girlish, highly sexualised pop singer (the cover of 2016’s Dangerous Woman depicts Grande in a PVC mask and bunny ears). The openness, vulnerability and strength she showed in public following this period of trauma saw her become more than that: a symbol of resilience.
Where Sweetener and thank u, next tapped directly into those difficulties (alongside, of course, some sexy pop bangers that had little to do with it), Positions is about emerging on the other side – the sort of pop psychology redemption arc that Grande’s young, emotionally clued-up fan base will delight in. All this is underpinned by big, bold R&B and delivered in the velvety, breathy soprano that has become Grande’s trademark. Opening track “Shut Up” showcases her buttery vocal over a string quartet. (Strings regularly appear throughout the album, alongside Grande’s habit of harmonising with herself in Grande-on-Grande backing-choir extravaganzas.) Here, the sound is all sweetness, the soundtrack of a daydreaming Disney princess – until we reach the ironic, eye-rolling chorus of this opener: “So maybe you should shut up”.
Grande’s playful self-awareness pervades the record. On “Just Like Magic”, she laments her phone addiction, riffing on life-hacks and self-care. “Twelve o’clock, I got a team meeting, then a meditation at like 1:30”, she sings, in the casual online vernacular that has characterised her music since “thank u, next”. Again, she creates a fantasy world undercut by ironic, “relatable” realism: “I get everything I want ’cause I attract it”, she sings on the chorus, before immediately admitting, in the next verse: “Looking at my phone, but I’m tryna disconnect it”. But “Just Like Magic” is also the first track on the album where her voice is expanded to its full capacity, alongside booming bass and matte-sounding, Drake-style melodies. And so we remember she’s nothing like us at all – the effect is magical.
The way Grande treats sex has always been different from, say, Good Girl Gone Bad-era Rihanna, who overtly harnessed her sexuality in powerful, uncensored tracks. Sex has long been a defining theme of Grande’s work, it was the first place she deployed her playfulness, turning to euphemism and flirtation with wink-wink lyrics like 2017’s “got me walking side to side”. She’s aware of this too. In “34+35” she riffs breathily over explicit lyrics and thinly veiled innuendos before signing off the track with a blunt explanation of the joke: “means I wanna 69 with ya… no shit”.
Some might find the endless sexy slow-jams exhausting. I was disappointed when I first heard lead single “Positions” (it means exactly what you think it does, and, with glossy production and unchallenging tempo, in isolation felt hollow somehow). But it’s one of the more generic, unprogressive tracks on an album that demonstrates Grande’s range and adaptability. On the three songs with feature artists – “Motive” feat. Doja Cat, “Off the Table” feat. The Weeknd, and “Safety Net” feat. Ty Dolla Sign – Grande bends herself to give way to their unique styles. And she can easily switch her own vocal style to pay tribute to past greats. On “My Hair” she’s immediately Christina Aguilera on Back To Basics, with jazz guitar backing, trumpet solo and powerful, belting runs. Then, on the same track, she becomes Mariah Carey, with a final verse in a whistle tone two octaves above the original.
On Positions Grande moves seamlessly from character to character: doe-eyed damsel; starry soul diva; sassy R&B queen; emotionally open, vulnerable millennial. As the album’s title would suggest, she is naturally adaptable. Musically, this is because of her voice (she is surely one of the best pop vocalists alive today). Yet what makes this album so confident and mature is its overt, practised sense of individual identity. Grande’s highly specific brand floats somewhere between a daydream and cold, hard reality and – we’re told – has emerged from a difficult journey. As a result, there are no dud tracks. Ariana Grande knows exactly what she’s doing, which is creating era-capturing music.