Ariana Grande hides the emotional stakes on Positions
There is little risk and reward on the pop star's latest album.
For women in pop, resilience — the act of bouncing back from hardships or trauma and emerging stronger — is the ultimate artistic virtue. You don’t need to look any further than Ariana Grande’s career for the proof. Across 2017 and 2018, the former Nickelodeon star became the world’s biggest pop singer, experienced a terror attack at her concert in Manchester and the death of her ex Mac Miller from a drug overdose, and entered into a highly publicized relationship with SNL regular Pete Davidson (the couple split in October 2018). Having to consolidate her trauma with her love, and her grief with her desire to be alive, Grande had no option but to either fold or transcend. The two albums which followed — Sweetener and Thank U, Next — charted her act of overcoming. “When life deals us cards/Make everything taste like it is salt/Then you come through like the sweetener you are/To bring the bitter taste to a halt,” she sang on Sweetener’s title track. Grande did emerge stronger and sweeter, and even fell in love with her own fortitude: “I’ve learned from the pain, I turned out amazing,” she sang on Thank U, Next. It was a loud act of resilience the public felt a part of, as Sweetener and Thank U, Next became the most talked-about and critically appraised works of her career.
More than a year later, Grande has returned with her sixth album, Positions, a project that buries its emotional stakes under horniness and oddly-articulated quips (she’s down for her man like "Six Thirty," because both the clock’s hands point down at that time). While the album does have a central, emotional preoccupation — Grande fears that her past will inhibit the success of her blossoming relationship — these 14 songs don’t hover around a point of emergency, nor do they dip and soar. Instead, in post-maximalist fashion, they plateau rather than climax, beginning and ending like short gusts of wind.
You’d be forgiven for confusing this with apathy, or a lack of dynamic. In her previous two works, much of the musical tension hinged on Grande’s determination to keep moving, and “breathing and breathing and breathing,” despite the immense effort that took. But on Positions, she’s found total control and ease. She curves her words so silkily inside the hooks that they transform from language into percussion: “Cookin' in the kitchen and I'm in the bedroom/I'm in the Olympics, way I'm jumpin' through hoops,” she sings on the title track. The soul-searching tone is gone. She’s no longer willing herself to move, but forcing others to catch up.
To the singer’s chagrin, there are more flexes on Positions than a bodybuilding contest. “Gotta keep a slim ego for a thick wallet,” she sings on “Just Like Magic,” spinning humility into braggadocio. While Positions often sounds like the product of a rich, bored person — it has a camp approach to luxury, which might be why so much of the instrumentation sounds like the “buy mode” in Sims — it’s also opened Grande up to some of the most musically interesting choices of her career. Regular collaborators TBHits and Mr. Franks joined forces with Atlanta hip-hop producer London on da Track to create the portly string section — a sound which recalls the sensuous era of Miri Ben-Ari-influenced hip-hop. There isn’t a single note that goes unaccounted for here, as they sweep through cinematic, bluesy, and pentatonic scales.
Sometimes it feels as though Grande is having more fun than her listener, opting for filth (“baby, you might need a seatbelt when I ride it,” to give one example from many) over sophistication. Several of the quips and euphemisms across the album feel far too absurd to land. Grande sings that she was “never good” in math class on “34+35,” and it seems she might be equally bad at math-related wordplay; the absence of longtime co-writer Victoria Monét is felt in moments like these. Meanwhile, the writing is strongest on the Monét-credited track “My Hair," as she helps turn Grande's most recognizable asset — her ponytail — into something private and only meant for one. “Usually don't let people touch it/But tonight, you get a pass,” she sings.
There is be little risk and reward on Positions, yet Grande's simple desire to memorialize the beginnings of a new love in real-time, and the new fears it entails, has allowed her to create a body of work not beholden to the narrative of resilience. It might not make for her most arresting album nor her most dramatic, but it’s certainly her most sensuous. B-