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The practice of seriously engaging with pop music couldn’t feel more trivial right now, even for a pop critic.
Between the looming election, a global pandemic, growing recognition and reform of continued racism in America, and the collective grief of no end in sight for extended quarantine, what place does a pop record have in the cultural discourse? Single-minded devotion to the most pressing concerns of the day seems logical when the stakes are so high, but mental and psychological respite is still necessary to survive an era of stress and revolution. In that case, consider Positions an emotional oasis in this otherwise dark(est) timeline. On her sixth full-length album, Ariana Grande returns to the campiness and joy that were a hallmark of her first three albums, updating the grand piano and slow strings with twitchy beats and explicit lyrics that unravel with a narrative precision her early work consistently lacked. Unlike the scattershot nature of Yours Truly, My Everything, and Dangerous Woman, Positions is laser-focused on one thing — her current sex life. Maybe the brevity of Thank U, Next helped her learn to self-edit, because this new record is as polished and nimble as that one.
Let’s contextualize Ariana writing an entire album about getting railed for a quick second. Recovering from trauma is a nearly superhuman feat, as is self-directing a new narrative about your life during the healing process. After facing down terrorism, losing a loved one to addiction, living with grief, and extracting herself from a toxic rebound relationship, the emotional fodder for some of the most impactful albums of Ariana’s career has been dense and dramatic. And, the universal popularity of her last two back-to-back releases only added to the pressure of an inevitable follow-up. So Positions was tasked with a difficult task from the start: Update the public on Ari’s healing, build upon the gargantuan commercial success she established in 2019, and usher in a new phase of her life. Considered through that lens, this record is just as consequential as the last two, giving us a view of Grande as the most sex-positive, happy, and in love as she’s ever been.
Blessedly free of any direct references to the current socio-political climate, and mostly skirting allusions to her own traumatic past, this quickly-announced new project cements her as an upper-echelon star who is able to shift and transform when the climate demands it. With the vaguely tropical, left-field vibe of the self-titled lead single — co-produced by London On Da Track, and reminiscent of his work with Noah Cyrus on “Fuckyounoah” — Ariana burst back onto the scene just a few weeks ago, casually announcing on Twitter her album would be out before Halloween. Using the “Positions” video as an opportunity to portray herself in a range of politicized roles, some of this feminist imagining was hard to stomach as the lyrics dictate her dual roles for a new lover are in the “kitchen and the bedroom,” a strangely retro and mildly disappointing mindset from a woman who has recently portrayed herself as much more progressive (as in, “wearing a ring but ain’t gon’ be no missus,” from her last smash, “7 Rings.”) But even if the lead-off song was a bit of a stumble, in the context of the whole project, the track is a shimmering late-album triumph, bolstered by a troupe of horny, vulnerable slow-burners that float by on the ultra-specific, relentless pop hooks she’s become so adept at writing.
The trilling opener “Shut Up” challenges any and all talking heads who might be tempted to pipe in with their opinions on Ariana’s life, and it’s the closest thing we get to a response to her ex-fiance’s Pete Davidson’s jokes at her expense. There’s little else here, lyrically at least, to indicate Pete, Mac, or even older flames like Sean and Ricky, are still on Ariana’s mind; all of their namechecks on “Thank U, Next” seem to be permanently pushed out of her head by the man who did appear on the scene to fulfill that song’s request. His name is never mentioned — actions speak louder than words. But it’s hard not to interpret songs this lyrically direct as autobiographical, and her last few records certainly set the table for fans and listeners to assume as much. If we do speculate that’s the case, then Grande’s new boyfriend Dalton Gomez is pleasing her in ways that are usually not discussed in polite company. So, please usher in impolite Ariana Grande, explicitly in love, hornier than ever, and making the best music of her life. This is the girl who licks donuts and hates America, directing her impish impulses to more, uh, productive ends.
The record’s evident standout “34 + 35” is probably the cutest litany about preparing for a long night of hooking up (“You know I keep it squeaky! / Saving up my energy”), skating the line between blunt f*ck synonyms (add the two numbers to get a sum of 69) and the sweet luxuries of monogamy. Alongside a beat-driven devotional to manifestation and positivity “Just Like Magic” and the commitment-questioning “Six Thirty,” Ari unpacks her specific desires on “My Hair” and “Nasty,” cementing the overall arc of the record as a series of sparkling, glitchy story-songs about how her sex life and love life have finally collided. Hell, at least it’s happening for someone. Instead of coming off as braggy or oversharing, the record is a welcome celebration of female pleasure, a collection of slow-burning songs anchored by wickedly funny puns and bursts of naked desire. Positions shares more DNA with an R-rated version of Grease than whatever else is going on in the contemporary R&B world, and Grande’s dirty language on this record leaves behind her former Nickelodeon and Disney star innocence forever. Thank god.
The few missteps on the album are her features, which is par for the course with Ari — no one fumbles a big name collab better than she can — and The Weeknd drags down the treacly “Off The Table” into worst song territory. Similarly, “Safety Net,” featuring Ty Dolla Sign, reaches for Drake-level emotionalism without ever connecting, and “Motive” becomes the only boring song Doja Cat’s been involved with in all of 2020. None of these derail the album, though, and nothing can go wrong for long whenever Ari’s spectacular vocals are dipping from head voice to full-blown harmony clusters to snappy, talk-sung one-liners. Her last album’s foray into hip-hop was cautious, and she’s backed further away from that here, even if her cadence sometimes indicates she’d still like to rap.
As always, Ariana’s songwriting is strongest when she’s working with her frequent female collaborators Victoria Monét and Tayla Parx, who help turn her hyper-feminine observations into cohesive thoughts that resonate far beyond the current moment. Parx’s assist on the album’s closing ballad “POV” is obvious, as gratitude for a partner’s love becomes an ambition to embrace even more self-love. Both Parx and Monet are credited on “34 + 35” and “My Hair,” which have already become fan favorites and feel like a sonic continuation of Thank U, Next’s giggliest, most confident material (“NASA,” “Make Up.”)
And just as Thank U, Next spoke clearly to the abundance of heartbreak this generation of young women have already experienced, Positions is a kind reminder that loneliness isn’t always the end of the story. Love can be a powerful rebuttal against hate, and in an era where women’s bodies are once again at risk of being legislated by crooked politicians, a female pop star glorying in her own sexual pleasure is (arguably) one small act of resistance. Think of this album as a sigh of relief, a sunspot, a cold glass of water. Grand, sweeping, classic it is not, and it needn’t be — like Thank U, Next, Positions is completely of its time. Whatever shape you’ve contoured yourself into to survive the long drag of 2020, this record serves as a reminder that a different point of view could be just around the corner.
Positions is out now via Republic Records. Get it here.