STEPHEN THOMPSON, HOST:
Ariana Grande is one of the world's biggest pop stars, and on Friday she released her sixth album "Positions."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSITIONS")
ARIANA GRANDE: (Singing) Switching them positions for you - cooking in the kitchen; then I'm in the bedroom. I'm in the Olympics, way I'm jumping through hoops.
AISHA HARRIS, HOST:
The singer's follow-up album to "Thank U, Next" finds her celebrating hard-won happiness in the string of poppy, sexually frank R&B songs. I'm Aisha Harris.
THOMPSON: And I'm Stephen Thompson. Today we are talking about Ariana Grande's new album "Positions" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "POSITIONS")
GRANDE: (Singing) Said, boy, I'm trying to meet your mama on Sunday and make a lot of love on a Monday.
THOMPSON: Welcome back. As we said up top, Ariana Grande has released six albums in the last seven years, but her career stretches back even farther than that. She was a child star on Nickelodeon. She performed on Broadway at 15, so she has spent nearly half her life in the public eye. She has stayed busy with activism and philanthropy, and she became a sort of cultural ambassador in the wake of a terrorist bombing that killed 22 of her fans at a concert in 2017. Last year's "Thank U, Next" was nominated for album of the year at this year's Grammy Awards, and now we're digesting her brand-new record "Positions."
Aisha, what do you think of the new record?
HARRIS: Well, while listening to it, as soon as it dropped the very first - well, not the very first thing. But I'd say, like, midway through the listening, I thought to myself, is this Ariana Grande's horniest album yet?
HARRIS: And yeah, I think it might be. It's - there's a lot of fun wordplay. There's a lot of come-ons, a lot of, hey; let's go have sex. And I really appreciate that. We've seen that in a lot of her previous songs as well. But I think throughout the album, that's sort of more of the theme that's going on here. Her last two albums are kind of where I started to really, really appreciate her as an artist and really got into her. Before, I was kind of more of a passive Ariana fan, and I liked a few of her songs here and there.
But I think, you know, that - you mentioned the terrorist bombing and the way in which that sort of brought her to a new sort of cultural relevance. I think that's when we started to see her music become much more personal.
HARRIS: And she started working with a wider variety of producers, including Pharrell. And I think Pharrell - he's, you know, one of the masters of our time as a producer and songwriter. And I think whenever he finds an artist he really, really clicks with, it really works. And I think that with Ariana, he has done a lot of really, really interesting stuff, especially on "Sweetener." There are a bunch of Pharrell-produced tracks on there, and they really pop sonically. Her voice really fits in and out of them really, really well. One of them, I think, is my favorite on that album, which is called "R.E.M." And we can listen to a little clip of that now.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "R.E.M.")
GRANDE: (Singing) You're like, I love you. Who starts a conversation like that? Nobody, but I do. But you are not a picture. I can't cut you and up and hide you. I'll get out my mind or try to. But I just want to stand and yell. I would never dare to tell. Think I heard some wedding bells. Keep it to yourself. Is this real? Is this real? Before you speak, don't move 'cause I don't want to wake up.
HARRIS: Yeah. There's just something about the sort of sparseness of that, the instrumentation mixed with her sort of fluttering in and out vocally over it that I just really, really love. And, you know, while that's not the most personal song, there was the sort of backdrop when that album came out. She was notoriously dating Pete Davidson of "SNL" fame, and that album deals a lot with that relationship in this sort of whirlwind nature of it. And I think that song is kind of a perfect example of that.
And then, you know, with her next album "Thank U, Next," she got even more personal addressing the untimely death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller. She had a couple of songs on there, including "Ghostin," which is another, like, really haunting, beautiful song about what it means to, you know, be in a new relationship with someone but mourning the loss of a previous relationship.
And so I think when she is at her best for me, she is what - it is when she is getting personal, when she has the right producer who can bring out both her nastiness but also her vulnerability and all of those things. And I think you get a little bit of that with this new album. But this is a point where - I wouldn't say she's plateaued as an artist at all, but I think she's sort of hit her stride. And nothing per se stands out to me quite in the same way as they have on previous albums.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I think that I had a little bit of a similar trajectory with appreciating Ariana Grande as an artist. I think early on, she really scanned to me as kind of somebody who had really come up as a child star and who, while she had a very, very impressive vocal range, scanned to me as a little bit sterile. And it wasn't until those albums "Sweetener" and "Thank U, Next" that I suddenly kind of realized how much potential she was realizing and just how outstanding she could be as a pop singer. I think "Thank U, Next" is a fantastic record. I think the song "Thank U, Next" is one of the best pop songs of the decade. I think it manages to be really catchy and just, like, indelible but at the same time one of the most, like, emotionally mature and grown-up songs I have heard from a pop artist in a really, really long time. And so I came into this record, you know, with greatly heightened expectations. And I think that this record really does feel a little bit more like a victory lap. It is, as you said, an extremely horny record - not always a super-subtly horny record.
HARRIS: (Laughter) No.
THOMPSON: There is a song on this record called "34+35" - and I'll let you do the math that - you know, is full of, like, all this just very blunt, not particularly subtext-y (ph) sentiment. And then right at the end of the song - I can't quote it, but she just basically, like, takes all of this nonexistent subtext, treats it as subtext and then states it as text.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "34+35")
GRANDE: (Singing) Can you 34, 35, 34, 35? Can you stay up all night, love me till the daylight? Thirty-four, thirty-five means I want to 69 with you.
THOMPSON: In that way, there is a joyousness to this record that I really appreciate. There are several songs that I think are straight-up fantastic bangers. But I did find that there were stretches of this record that felt a little same-y (ph) to me where I found myself kind of tuning it out and having to jump back and kind of trying to reattach to it. So it's a little bit of a mixed bag for me from an artist who I've really come to love in recent years.
HARRIS: Yeah. I think, you know, one of the more personal songs she has on this album is the opener, "Shut Up." And it is very much a sort of kiss-off to people all up in her business. Like, it's a song that, like, lots of pop stars do where it's like, why are you so obsessed with me?
HARRIS: Sorry. I have to quote Mariah because they do have a connection there. But that song, I think, really works in a way. To me, I think with this album, it's all about the melodies. And something like "Shut Up," something like "Motive," which is her song with Doja Cat...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MOTIVE")
GRANDE: (Singing) Tell me; what's your motive? What's your motive? What's your motive? (Vocalizing). So tell me; what's your motive? What's your motive? What's your motive? (Vocalizing).
HARRIS: I think that might be my favorite song in part because it makes me sad that I cannot be in a club and dancing to it...
HARRIS: ...Because it is a straight-up, like, deep house sort of banger that I really, really appreciated. And I love those highlights for me. I do think so much of the themes in this are about, you know, hooking up with someone or being in love. And not that that hasn't always been in her repertoire, but the second half of the album - I definitely felt like it kind of - just kind of dealt with that. And the melodies were not nearly as catchy for me as I wanted them to be.
HARRIS: One song that I really did appreciate besides "Motive" was "Love Language," which finds her, like, very much in her breathy register. And it has this sort of slightly disco-y (ph) feel to it that I can also feel kind of, like, pulsating in a way. Let's listen to a little bit of that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVE LANGUAGE")
GRANDE: (Singing) If you're going to keep speaking my love language, you could talk your s*** all night. You the medication when I'm feeling anxious. That's the kind of s*** I like. Teach me how to love you. I'm unlearning what ain't right. I want you to keep speaking my love language. Baby, talk your s*** all night.
HARRIS: Yeah. I feel like she's really - she got a little funkier on that record. And I think overall, this finds her delving even deeper into R&B than she did across previous albums, which I think can be hit-or-miss for her. I feel like we can't talk about Ariana without also talking about something like "7 Rings" - which was on the last album, "Thank U, Next" - and brought up a lot of controversy for not just the song itself but also for the music video. There were a bunch of different rappers and performers who kind of called her out and claimed that she had stolen pieces of their song and the way that she stylized her vocals there, including Princess Nokia, Soulja Boy, 2 Chainz. They all accused her of plagiarizing a version, like, sampling of her song.
I feel very conflicted about the song because it is really, really catchy and really, really fun. And one of the co-writers on that song, Victoria Monet, who has done a lot of collaboration with Ariana across the last few albums - she is just a real genius at interpolating other genres and bringing them into the fold. And so that video gave me serious "Spring Breakers" vibes. It's sort of neon-y (ph). And there are - you know, it's just lots of women, a lot of them white or white-presenting, sort of gallivanting in the way you would expect, like, a Black rapper to do. And, you know, there are conversations to be had about whether that crosses the line of cultural appropriation. I think, in some ways, it does. On the other hand, you know, it's complicated.
HARRIS: And I can't help it. I really, really like that song. So, I mean, I think she deserves to be sort of put on notice for those sort of things. But I also think some of her best songs are the ones that really delve deeply into R&B and things like that.
THOMPSON: Yeah. I mean, I came away from this record with, like, a few favorites. I think that the "Shut Up" song that you mentioned is usually my least favorite kind of pop song - the kind of, I'm mad at my critics, which...
THOMPSON: ...Usually I find (laughter) super-irritating, but here manages to be kind of a stand-in for just kind of shouting down this, like, kind of angry, throbbing world that we're living in. And I think that that song captures that with these - like, these really beautiful strings, which I actually kind of wish I'd gotten to hear a little bit more of on this record. Let's actually hear a little bit of "Shut Up."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHUT UP")
GRANDE: (Singing) My presence sweet and my aura bright - diamonds good for my appetite. Guess it f****** just clicked one night. All them demons helped me see s*** differently, so don't be sad for me. How you been spending your time? How? How you be using your tongue? How? You be so worried about mine, mine - can't even get yourself none.
THOMPSON: I mean, I think themes of liberation certainly run through her music. I - when you look at where this record falls in the trajectory of her career and how reactive her last couple albums have had to be - she is somebody who has spoken really publicly about needing to process trauma. She is a very outspoken proponent of therapy, which I (laughter) greatly appreciate.
THOMPSON: And I do think that she has earned an album that is more about joy and sex and liberation. It's interesting. Linda Holmes once said about Beyonce that she could break down Beyonce's music into, like, fun Beyonce and institutional Beyonce.
THOMPSON: And when you think about it that way, there is a little bit of fun Ariana Grande and institutional Ariana Grande. And like the way Beyonce would take a victory lap with an album like "The Carters," this feels like a victory lap record. This feels like a kind of, I have had to bob and weave through a very difficult few years, and now I'm just kind of in this more comfortable place. And I think this record is kind of about navigating that more comfortable place. And so there isn't as much - or it doesn't feel like there is as much tension to it, as we've kind of gotten accustomed to. And so some of the songs are a little bit harder, I think, for me to latch onto, at least in the first three or four listens.
HARRIS: Absolutely. I also just appreciate that, you know, in the last few years, she's spoken very explicitly about wanting to be able to do the same thing that, like, rappers, especially SoundCloud rappers and people like Lil Wayne, do, which is they don't even necessarily always drop albums. They just drop mixtapes...
HARRIS: ...Or, you know, they release music as they want to creatively and process it in that way as opposed to, like, what the record label wants. And, I think, getting three new albums from her in less than three years - the fact that two of those albums, I think, are really, really stand out and pushing the form, I, too, am not too sad about the fact that this one may not feel, to me, at least, as exciting in the same way as the other ones did. I also think this feels like a grower. You know, I've had less than 24 hours to process this. And I can name two or three songs that we've already talked about that really stood out for me. And I imagine if I keep relistening to it, I will find even more.
THOMPSON: I agree.
HARRIS: I do feel like, just like those other two albums, this is the kind of album you can play all the way through. And there's not, to me, any really bad songs.
HARRIS: It's just, you know, some of them sort of are in the background. And others, as soon as you hear them, they pop. And so yeah, I'm all here for this victory lap, as we were calling it.
THOMPSON: Yeah. And I like the point about mixtapes versus albums, and the way some artists are allowed to kind of raise and lower the stakes with each album and not have that derail some kind of larger career momentum. And, I mean, one of the first things I noticed about this record was that it was 14 songs and 41 minutes. And, you know, that's a pretty generous helping of songs. But it is a fairly generous helping of, like, 2 1/2 to 3 1/2-minute songs. And you don't have that, like, here is my big, impressive album bloat that you sometimes get with major pop stars - (coughing) Drake.
HARRIS: Or "20/20 Experience" (coughing).
THOMPSON: Oh, my God.
HARRIS: Eight-minute opuses (laughter).
THOMPSON: Yeah. There are definitely no eight-minute opuses here. There is not an opus to be found.
THOMPSON: We want to know what you think about Ariana Grande's new album. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter at @PCHH. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks so much, Aisha, for being here with me.
HARRIS: Thank you, Stephen.
THOMPSON: And before we go, we wanted to let you know we're going to be talking about "The West Wing." And we want your questions. I have many thoughts. Send us a voice message with your question to email@example.com. Again, send us a voice memo with your question to firstname.lastname@example.org. And, of course, thanks so much for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. We'll see you all right back here tomorrow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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