On Ariana Grande’s third album in as many years, the dominant pure-pop star of the second half of the 2010s eases out of the stress position induced by the series of public and private tragedies that famously have befallen her. It returns to more relaxed and in many ways familiar musical postures. But that’s not to say Positions is just going through the motions.
The tightly constructed 14-song collection calls back to the mixture of R&B and old-school balladry that’s been closest to the virtuosic 27-year-old singer’s heart ever since her 2013 debut album, Yours Truly—however much she’s swerved from it to claim more daring or current identities along the way. Unlike 2018’s Sweetener, marked by sonic adventures with producer Pharrell, or last year’s Thank U, Next, with sounds from Max Martin and the duo Social House, Positions finds her mostly in the company of longtime collaborators, led by Tommy “TBHits” Brown. One reason may be that it was the most comfortable under quarantine, though Grande hasn’t disclosed enough about the recording timeline for anyone to be sure. In fact, she said in May that she wouldn’t put out a quarantine album. But if this is one, it sounds less like it than any other prominent example, skimping not at all on sonic sweep and scale, emphasizing strings and layers of multitracked vocal gossamer more than the crisper trap-pop of her more recent albums (though not to trap-pop’s exclusion). The kind of homecoming it is, though, is one after willing and unwilling excursions into hard, inhospitable regions. As she sings on “Shut Up,” the opening track, “All them demons helped me see shit differently.” And now she’s bringing that adult perspective back to her stylistic roots.
I mean adult as in mature and as in “adult content,” because this is also Grande’s most shamelessly sexed-up set yet—something to say about a singer who once made mainstream pop’s horniest-ever Christmas album. It was hinted at in the advance title track, with its verses about being willing to assume a wide range of both sexual and social roles for a partner (with the video clarifying that one of the roles could be president). But that wasn’t quite preparation for the second track here, “34+35,” which demands “fuck me till the daylight,” makes a series of priapic “keep it up” jokes, assures that she “don’t need no side dick,” and on the fadeout spells out that the title equation “means I wanna 69 with you/ no shit, math class/ never was good.” And on “Nasty,” she declares, “I just wanna make time for you. … Like this pussy’s designed for you.” (I didn’t say it was all good sex talk.)
But as post-“WAP” as Positions comes across, it’s pretty much all in the service of monogamous devotion, albeit often also about the fear of going so deep, no double entendre intended. The raunchy fun jumps out first, but the core of the record is in songs such as “Off the Table,” a duet with the Weeknd (and a self-conscious sequel to their 2014 hit “Love Me Harder”) that contends with how to accept new love after toxic relationships. There’s also “Love Language,” which alternates upbeat but tense, clavé rhythm–based verses of trepidation with swoony choruses of surrender (not to mention an unusual coda that builds almost a separate minisong on the same bones). And the closer “POV” is a convincingly lush, widescreen power ballad about how much more satisfyingly understood and adored the singer feels through her lover’s eyes. In a couple of spots, she even slides more radical propositions into his musical DMs, like “Just gimme them babies” (on “34+35”) or “Let me … be your wife” (“West Side”).
This album has that, if nothing else, in common with records released this year by her millennial pop peers Taylor Swift (Folklore), Justin Bieber (Changes), and to some extent Katy Perry (Smile)—all grappling with grown-up love and the prospect of domestic contentment after the tumult of extended adolescences in the spotlight. But for the other three, that shift followed a wane in their ultra-stardom on the charts and airwaves over spans of years. Grande is coming directly off the successive triumphs of her two biggest albums and her two most competition-flattening singles, “Thank U, Next” and “7 Rings,” not to mention just a few months ago her aggressively cathartic No. 1 and VMAs Song of the Year “Rain on Me,” with Lady Gaga. So the insular turn here is unexpected. And kind of a disappointment.
Compared with the pop-cultural and emotional seismic waves Grande’s regularly set off in recent years, this album feels paltry. It is merely supremely competent and pleasurable. Grande’s bravura vocal profusions and naughty wit and her collaborators’ top-shelf arrangements are undeniable. That’s so even when the songs seem like missteps or filler, like the annoyingly L.A. self-actualization–saturated “Just Like Magic,” the merely all right Ty Dolla Sign feature “Safety Net,” and the failed provocation “Nasty.” As an intro, “Shut Up” seems like an attitudinal leftover that doesn’t fit the rest of the album, but it’s worth it for the highly meme-able sound of a chorus of angelic Arianas singing, “You sound so dumb/ So maybe you should shut up.” I do immensely appreciate Grande’s throwback, technicolor, MGM-musical side getting so much play here. And who could resist the several showcases of her Mariah-inherited whistle register, as on the outro of “My Hair”?
But that tactile, whistle-enhanced slow jam also reminds me of the controversy over the lines in “7 Rings” that went “You like my hair?/ Gee thanks, just bought it.” Grande was accused, fairly or not, of swiping that sentiment from Black women artists, and wading clumsily into the intricate matter of Black hair in general. Now “My Hair” goes on about inviting her lover to run his hands through her famously ponytailed and sometimes extension-woven locks (redone for this album in Jackie O. retro), which she “usually [won’t] let people touch.” If this is a reply to that previous debate, it seems a sidelong and generally tone-deaf one. If not, a different lascivious central image might have been a better choice. Either get in the fray, Ariana, or don’t.
That case stands for the more general way this back-to-basics-plus album feels like Grande resigning the burden of meaning that’s been thrust upon her since the 2017 Manchester concert attack, a significance she’s found so many creative ways to cultivate and expand. This resignation, this decision just to make some horny and beautiful love songs and to hell with everything else, is her prerogative. No artist is obliged to mean more than they want to mean. But that ebb in meaning is also one the listener experiences. And why, then, the hurry to get out this still-uneven album, four days before a cataclysmic-feeling American election? (It’s not as if Grande hasn’t been politically outspoken herself.) Maybe the timing is a further rebuke to that pressure to mean too much. More charitably, perhaps she thought everyone could use some horny beautiful love songs to help get through that potential cataclysm. And you know what? The hell with it. I’ll take it.