Photo Credit: Dave Meyers, courtesy of Republic Records
Casting positions as Ariana Grande’s ‘quarantine album’ oversimplifies the context the rest of her illustrious catalog provides in shaping its creation. This is, after all, the same woman who planned and recorded thank u, next in eight weeks – she operates comfortably in overdrive. So when she announced her sixth album and its eponymous lead single, expectations built to resemble her last album cycles, when fate intertwined Sweetener and thank u, next. Instead, this new album largely follows its own meandering path. Made with a team composed of many of her familiar collaborators, positions is a sex record that wastes no opportunities to glorify the many different ways Grande wants to get down with her new man, real estate agent Dalton Gomez.
positions is Grande’s sixth studio album and fifth to reach number one, and it shows a blossoming maturity that accompanies all her work released after the Manchester Arena bombing. It’s decidedly silly in places and raunchy in others, but it builds a steady admiration of commitment over its 41-minutes. The impatient, hungry vixen in “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” isn’t gone, she’s just learned to express her needs more immediately.
An actual quarantine album, sex jams permeate positions and most are focused on just being horny, the trap-pop production enveloping Grande’s mumbling and turning up the temperature. “nasty” plays around with a coy romance until she hits the pre-chorus and the song’s intentions become all too clear. “34+35” also presents itself with immediacy, elating with lines like, “If I put it quite frankly // Just gimme them babies!” One of Grande’s weaknesses is her tendency to force her sense of humor on her listener rather than letting the writing play out – “34+35” loses its fun when she lets us in on the joke, and while “my hair” humanizes her larger-than-life signature ponytail, she reveals her walls again when she mentions that touching it is usually off-limits (but she does want you to touch it, maybe).
The most disappointing quality of positions is that it never hits a stride in its track list, instead offering glimmers and teases of what could have been an extremely strong collection of songs. It’s still thrilling that an artist of Grande’s polish and caliber feels free enough to release an album like this, but her notorious perfectionism might have pummeled this set a little too hard. Three superstar guest turns fall flat, with Doja Cat, The Weeknd, and Ty Dolla $ign contributing little to the songs they touch.
“my hair” could be redeemed by its slinky, India.Arie-mimicking instrumental, but Grande overuses her coveted whistle-tone register, turning a gratuitous display of her gift into a borderline disorienting experience. “positions” was destined to go viral, released days in advance of the 2020 US elections and accompanied by a fittingly presidential video; while the song stands up on its own merit, the banality of the real message contrasting the seriousness of the implied message can only be described as a cultural bait-and-switch, especially coming from an artist as politically involved as Grande (she endorsed Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries and registered record numbers of voters on her most recent US tour leg).
At 27-years-old, Grande is leagues ahead of her peers in her ability to emote confidently and empathetically. Her songs convey her thoughts and her point of view, and those thoughts are marred by trauma and built back up with hope. “pov” closes the album with diva ballad flair, but switches the script in the ways it highlights her own insecurities and faults. “I’m getting used to receiving // Still getting good at not leaving,” is a heartening, honest admission from a star who’s learning to let more light into her life. positions doesn’t make the same forward bounds as its predecessors, but it’s comfortable in being content. Grande operating in overdrive is Grande choosing to record and release an album even when she might not need to – and all she needs to let us know at this moment is that she’s content.