The opening track of Ariana Grande’s latest album, ‘Positions’, sets a precedent for the entire record. “How you be using your time? / You be so worried ’bout mine” she croons on ‘Shut Up’, a string-laden R&B jam that sees Grande’s distinctive vocals flutter over lush, sugary orchestration. Taking aim at critics, she sweetly asserts: “You know you sound so dumb”, adding, “So maybe you should shut up”.
It feels fitting that this was the first song Grande wrote for her sixth album. Her past two records – 2018’s ‘Sweetener’ and 2019’s ‘Thank U, Next’ – were written in the midst of highly documented personal pain. ‘Sweetener’ followed the Manchester Arena Bombing, where 22 people were killed by a homemade bomb in a terror attack at one of Grande’s live show; ‘Thank U, Next’ came after the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and her very public relationship and breakup with ex-fiancé Pete Davidson. For the past few years, as Grande’s released some career-best music, she’s also found every aspect of her life scrutinised and reported on.
On ‘Positions’, though, she’s optimistically moving onto the next chapter of her life. Sick of constant speculation, she’s taking the narrative into her own hands, stating: “All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me”.
This strength and perseverance threads throughout ‘Positions’, an album that finds Grande thriving. Embracing a new relationship (Grande wrote this album during lockdown while quarantining with her new boyfriend, estate agent Dalton Gomez), she’s honest about the fear she felt falling in love again, the comfort she’s found after letting her guard down and, most of all, all the sex she’s been having.
On the raunchily titled ‘34+35’ (you do the maths), she begins: “If I put it quite plainly / Just give me them babies”. In case that demand was too understated, she later asks: “Can you stay up all night? / Fuck me ’til the daylight”. On ‘Nasty’ she sighs “I just want to make time for you / Swear it’s just right for you / Like this pussy designed for you”. And on the deliciously filthy ‘Love Language’ she starts with a veiled come on (“Baby, pardon my French, but could you speak in tongues?”), before adding, “Ain’t no need to remind ya / It’s AG in your face”. Get it, girl!
In amongst all the shagging, Grande gets vulnerable. On ‘Safety Net’, a woozy collaboration with rapper and R&B star Ty Dolla $ign, fuelled by icy production and shuffling beats, she admits, “I’ve never been this scared before / Feelings I just can’t ignore,” before embracing the uncertainty: “Don’t know if I should fight or flight/But I don’t mind”. Meanwhile, on lead single ‘Positions’, she honestly confesses her fears about repeating past relationships: “Heaven sent you to me / I’m just hopin’ I don’t repeat history”.
Yet ‘Positions’ lacks the megawatt pop belters of previous releases. There are moments of pure bliss. ‘My Hair’, begins as another sultry sex jam – Grande coyly flirting, “Said I’m gon’ give you some instructions / That you can’t be scared to try / I want you to touch it softly / Like the way you do my mind” – before the reveal: the song’s actually about her signature high ponytail: “But don’t you be scared / To run your hands through my hair”. With its strutting synths and retro guitar licks, and the grand finale chorus delivered entirely in whistle-notes, it’s ecstatic. The swivelling ‘Love Language’ is a swaggering earworm, and the bouncing electro-house of ‘Motive’ is a sweet treat.
Largely, though, the slick production, Broadway strings and washy R&B melodies also results in a swathe of indistinct songs. Understated moments are sticky and never reach a climax (‘POV’, ‘West Side’), unnecessary guest appearances add little (The Weeknd collaboration ‘Off the Table’ – ‘Love Me Harder’ this is not); and exaggerated, string-heavy arrangements mean that ‘Positions’ sometimes veers dangerously close to musical theatre (‘Six Thirty, ‘Obvious’).
It’s a pleasant listen, but this feels strange juxtaposed with the lyrical content that flits between brazen vulnerability and all-out raunch-fest, demanding something more. As an introduction to the next era of Grande’s career, it’s solid, but you can’t help but feel it’s missing some of her trademark sparkle.
Release date: October 30
Record label: Republic