Ariana Grande is on a roll. After releasing two of her strongest albums mere months apart (2018’s Grammy award-winning Sweetener; 2019’s Thank U, Next) her sixth, Positions, announced a fortnight ago and written, recorded and produced during the sex-starved Covid era, is one of her most interesting yet: breathlessly dirty and playful R’n’B that affirms once again her status as a leader of the pop pack.
Having found love at the start of 2020 with a rumoured realtor boyfriend, Grande opts for a stream of consciousness, diaristic style of songwriting here (“I ain’t tryna sign no lease / I’m just gon’ make you my home” she sings on Love Language). It’s laced with some of the strange production quirks – borrowed from early-00s video games – that led some fans to struggle with the skewed, throwback work of Pharrell on the misunderstood Sweetener. Those seeking Break Free-scalebangers will probably be disappointed – this is anti-masses pop, mostly mellow, with lyrics often so gobsmackingly frank that you wonder if she’ll regret singing them later.
Musicians are often praised for restraint and intelligent innuendo in pop songs, carefully crafting them with radio play in mind. After a summer of WAP, those old rules have been smudged and Grande, absconding the chase for chart success (or rather being popular enough to receive it regardless of her output), is embracing sexual dominance: it seems the pressure of a young fanbase is no longer of interest to a woman in her mid-20s.
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On 34 + 35, she sings about the sum of those figures (“I’m a leave it open like a door, come inside it”) over lustrous strings lifted right from the score of a Disney fairytale. Spectral whistle-tones are buried beneath the slow cosmic grind of the explicit Nasty. And while the lyrics of the album’s R&B-led title track and lead single might suggest subservience (Switching the positions for you), there’s an assertive mood in the smoky karma sutra of her cadence that suggests Grande always has the upper hand.
Positions is bookended by songs with chart promise –the early-noughties Doja Cat-starring bop Motive is a highlight – but there’s a strained midsection that brings the buoyancy to a halt. Off the Table, a collaboration with The Weeknd, plods along like an off-cut with too much starpower to warrant chopping, followed by the sparse Ty Dolla $ignfeature Safety Net. They’re the closest this record gets to filler, and it’s no coincidence that both feature male voices where elsewhere, Positions proudly indulges in the desire of women. Men, then, are rendered footnotes in the narrative.
The pace picks up again with My Hair, a lyrically slight but full-bodied ode to the star’s famous ponytail that features some of the smoothest Grande belts since Dangerous Woman. But the real gem of the second act is Love Language, which uses the record’s string and R’n’B drumbeat recipe to create a giddy, circus-silly song about sex. There’s no line clean enough to quote.
After a tumultuous few years – first the Manchester terror attack in 2017, followed by the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller, then the breakdown of her engagement to Pete Davidson – it was vulnerability that shaped much of Sweetener and naturally bled into Thank U, Next, but that same sadness is conspicuously absent from Positions. It feels like a segue into a new chapter of Grande’s career; in which the star puts fun back at the forefront while still leaving space to explore her insecurities. There’s a brief moment of gorgeous fragility, on its sole ballad “pov”. “I wanna love me… / for all of my pretty / And all of my ugly too,” she sings, her vocal runs both bruised and euphoric. Even when she’s hellbent on being the carnal queen of the pop flex, Grande always remembers that the best stars give themselves room to grow.