Regina Sung

At the 2020 Grammys, Ariana Grande signaled the end of the “Sweetener” and ”thank u, next” era with the shaking of her head and a closed ring box. As the lights went black on Grande, Arianators worldwide wondered what was next for the singer. She had just wished the world farewell, literally, with her live album “k bye for now,” and now, Grande was ending one of the most tumultuous chapters in her life. She could finally take a break.

But when COVID-19 took over the U.S. in March, Grande was left to herself, her music and her new boyfriend Dalton Gomez, a Los Angeles real estate agent. So, being the workaholic that she evidently is, all this free time meant time to write singles (“Stuck with You” with Justin Bieber and “Rain on Me” with Lady Gaga) and, unbeknownst to the public until about 16 days before it dropped, an entire album.

“Positions,” the 27-year-old singer’s sixth studio album and third in about two years, takes the listener through a budding relationship, from a crush and “the fun sex” (“34+35”) to fears of what someone’s intentions are (“motive”), of whether falling in love is an option (“off the table”), of jumping in too fast (“safety net”), of whether the relationship will last (“six thirty”) to opening up to your partner (“my hair,” “pov”) to falling “head over shoes” in love (“love language,” “obvious”). The album features Grande’s signature pop sound with strong R&B influences and features exciting, fresh moments where Grande experiments with a funkier retro sound.

Though the album’s themes bear resemblance to Grande’s fifth album “Sweetener,” “Positions” comes from a different perspective. With “Sweetener,” Grande basked in the highs of her life, writing about love, sex and dealing with her anxieties without knowing that the next few months would send her to her lowest points. But “Positions” comes from a more sophisticated Grande, one who has publicly lost a loved one. In the opening song, Grande sets the tone, cooing “All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me.” Grande — after the bombing at her Manchester concert, calling off her engagement with comedian Pete Davidson and losing her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller to a drug overdose — has learned from all these experiences.

And with a more mature perspective, Grande is also writing about more mature topics, with many explicit references to sex. In an interview with Zach Sang, Grande laughed at the idea that there still exist people who are shocked when she sings about sex because of the innocent nature of her Nickelodeon character Cat Valentine. But those listeners are in for a surprise when they listen to Grande’s latest album, as they hear that the sex is so good it’s like her “pussy designed for” Gomez (“nasty”) or hear her sing “34+35,” which literally refers to the 69 sex position.

But even with more explicit content, Grande’s lyrics remain thoughtful. Throughout the album, Grande gives nods to her previous works to show how much she’s changed and grown. In “safety net,” Grande asks if her feelings toward her partner are “real this time or is it in my head?” This is directly calling back to “in my head” from her previous album, which, in essence, sums up why Davidson and Grande didn’t work together. Now, Grande is wondering if her new love will see the same fate. In “love language,” Grande tells her lover, “You the medication when I’m feeling anxious,” which resolves a lyric from “breathin,” a song from her album “Sweetener.” In this song, Grande struggles to deal with her anxiety, so “people tell me to medicate.” Grande has finally found that “medication,” which in this case, is Gomez.

Some of the most meaningful lyrics on the album can be found in the beautifully honest “pov,” which finishes off the 14-song record. In “pov,” Grande wonders what she looks like in her lover’s eyes and sings some of the most touching lyrics she’s ever written. For example, she sings: “How you touch my soul from the outside / Permeate my ego and my pride.” Grande is able to put down her walls around him, and while she was “frozen,” Gomez’s love is slowly thawing her out, allowing her to begin to open up to love again. The song serves as the perfect culmination of the album and of Grande’s last few years. She recognizes her fear, but has made the leap into her new relationship with Gomez, and with him, she’s able to relax, let go and love — not only Gomez, but also herself.

Now, it wouldn’t be right to talk about Grande without talking about her voice. In the Sang interview, Grande explained how on her last few projects, she was more focused on creating a narrative or making bops. For this album, however, she wanted to “sing a little more,” and Grande most certainly lived up to that. The quintessential example of this comes at the end of “my hair,” a personal favorite of mine. In the track, Grande sings the entire final chorus in her whistle register: an incredibly difficult thing to do made effortless with Grande’s talents.

The strings are also one of the most stunning parts of the album — I mean I was literally floored when I heard the beginning of “love language” for the first time. Grande wanted to start each track with strings, she said in the Sang interview, and most of the songs were built up around them. From the very beginning of “shut up,” the listener is introduced to the strings, which create the vibe of a Disney-fairy-tale-style crush. And in “love language” specifically, the strings drive the beat with a disco-like sound that forces you to dance along. Since the strings can be found on every track of the album, they provide a beautiful continuity; the album flows cohesively from one song to the next.

Left broken after losing Miller and splitting from Davidson, Ariana Grande may have “Never thought [she’d] believe in love again” (obvious), but she made it out of that dark place alive and glowing with a stellar record to prove it. “Positions” shows the world a new Grande, but not one different from the one who wrote “Sweetener” and “thank u, next.” Instead, it shows a person who has accepted her past and grown stronger because of it. While she may still have her naive “pete davidson” or her sulking “ghostin” moments, Grande is happy and in love, and “Positions” makes sure everybody knows it.

Adam Levine | a.levine@yale.edu