How does someone like Ariana Grande follow one of pop’s greatest, boldest break-up albums? With a horny, campy collection of R&B slow jams, of course.
In all its naughty glory, Positions doesn’t teach us anything new about Grande: she’s always had a penchant for both subtle (“Imagine”) and not-so-subtle (“Side to Side”) sexual innuendos and come-ons, delivered sweetly from that Broadway-born voice of hers. Her theater kid side adds an extra dose of lightness to the project, a now-signature element of all her albums. Combined with the team of trusted allies that made Thank U, Next such a success story — producer TBHits, songwriters Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx — Positions may be the clearest window into the pop superstar’s brain and sense of humor.
Grande’s sixth album opens with a flush of strings and a little update on her life since Thank U, Next. “Shut Up” is the one lyrical outlier to the rest of the album, a critic-panning middle finger that is quickly forgettable the minute “34+35” starts up. The strings return but a little bouncier, flirtier and sunnier, like a Disney princess singing the praises of sixty-nining while skipping through a meadow surrounded by an audience of doe-eyed animals. Positions escalates quickly: she instructs her lover to go “down like sunsets”on “Six Thirty” (a playful reference to where the hands of a clock point at that time); on the Scott Storch-assisted “My Hair,” she gives permission for her typically untouchable hair to be stroked. Tracks like “Nasty,” “West Side” and “Positions” are simpler in their approach: straightforward pleas to get down and dirty any time, any place.
When it comes to pop star provocations, horny-leaning albums like these often depend too staunchly on the shock and awe factor. Positions is able to keep itself grounded in one truth: the protagonist in this story is a woman in love and she is rooted in the desire to express intimacy with someone she hopes sticks around for the long haul. Grande’s duets with the Weeknd and Ty Dolla $ign help make sure the love story stays on track, providing brief moments of self-reflective balladry that dig into her own neuroses around trust and commitment. Closing track “POV” is even more deeply effective at knocking the romance out of the park, with Grande celebrating and admiring the way her partner sees her, wanting to see herself the same way.
Positions is not the Ariana Grande Wheel reinvented. Its biggest risk is that in a sea of constant pop reinvention, Grande has hunkered down more confidently and astutely on her core musical identity, one that she has very rarely swayed from. Thank U, Next perfected that formula, straddling a new line between pop standards, traditional R&B and modern rap production. Positions is minor growth, major strength and a solid step forward in the right direction for one pop’s most exciting stars.