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Ariana Grande Positions Review - Stereogum

Ariana Grande  Positions  Review - Stereogum
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Musically, the song tells us something significant about Positions, Grandes sixth album, out Friday: This will be a collection dominated by strings. Again and again the orchestral backing returns, sometimes subtly, darting and weaving into the arrangement of disparate songs as if standing in for Grandes backup dancers. Its not symphonic music or chamber-pop by any stretch, and the violins and such dont appear on every single track, but theyre definitely a recurring flourish pirouetting disco-style over the boom-bap R&B of Love Language, weeping in the background of the brisk club banger Motive, lending an air of luxuriant sophistication to an explicit sex romp called 34+35. (You do the math.)

Yet if the sonic texture of Shut Up sets the course for Positions, the tracks perturbed mood is a major outlier. Almost everything else on the album is about the thrills and anxieties that arise when youre settling into a mature adult relationship. Grande is madly in love with high-powered LA real estate agent Dalton Gomez and believes their romance could be more durable than the ones name-checked on thank u, next. She made this album while she and Gomez were quarantining together, reveling in a prolonged domestic intimacy that must be foreign for a superstar used to living on the go. The circumstances are notably less tumultuous than the ones that spawned Grandes last two albums, 2018s Sweetener and 2019s thank u, next , a stretch that famously included a terrorist bombing at one of her concerts, the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller from a drug overdose, and a broken engagement to SNLs Pete Davidson. The resulting album is more low-key, a set of largely understated songs about contentment and the fear of it slipping away.

Positions slots in alongside recent happy-couple dispatches like Kacey Musgraves Golden Hour , Camila Cabellos Romance , and Justin Biebers Changes : albums consumed with a life-altering love, basking in a partners glow while also freaking out at the prospect of longterm happiness and the threat of everything going wrong. Its not a career-defining masterpiece like Golden Hour nor an embarrassing creative misstep like Changes, and it boasts a more distinct, appealing sonic identity than the scattershot Romance, albeit one that doesnt leap from the speakers with the urgency of Grandes best work.

Grande spends Positions enjoying rapturous sex, tentatively letting her guard down, and praying we dont fuck this up. On Motive, she wonders whether her new beau is too good to be true. On Six Thirty, she lets herself start imagining a lifetime together, but her fantasies are tainted by doubt: What you gonna do when Im bored and I want to play video games at 2AM? What if I need a friend? Will you ride til the end? Am I enough to keep your love? When Im old and stuff, will you still have a crush? The shadowy Ty Dolla $ign duet Safety Net spells out what could be a thesis statement for the album: Ive never been this scared before/ Feelings I just cant ignore/ Dont know if I should fight or flight/ But I dont mind.

Despite her apprehension, the album often finds Grande inching toward deeper intimacy. Just let me be in your life like that/ Be your wife like that, she urges on the casual slow-creep West Side, just after beckoning, I wanna get nasty, what you waitin for? on the woozy and 40-esque Nasty. On the title track and lead single, she professes her versatility as a partner and proclaims, Boy, Im tryna meet your mama on a Sunday/ Then make a lotta love on a Monday. The playfully jazzy My Hair may be the most vulnerable moment of all, with Grande inviting her man to run his hands through her signature ponytail. Usually dont let people touch it, she sings, but tonight you get a pass.

Grandes performances throughout are impeccable as usual. She strings together dynamic vocal flourishes delicate flutters, spiraling powerhouse melodies, punchy half-spoken darts and weaves with a fluidity that feels free-associative even as it adapts to the music with a composers ear. She also seems to have cleaned up the slurred enunciation that was once the subject of wisecracks. Arguably shes never sounded more in control of her superpower, that ability to put classic soul and R&B expressiveness in conversation with modern hip-hop trends the way her whistle-singing forebear Mariah Carey once did. But the sonic environments shes cutting loose in here are some of the least stimulating of her career. The string section, which could have pushed this albums sound to fascinating places, more often blurs into the mix. The writing drifts along more often than it pops. On balance its a solid but unremarkable Ariana Grande album, a cut above much of the pop-R&B landscape but a disappointment given the run shes been on lately.

Things get off to an energetic start with the immaculate Shut Up, the contagiously fun 34+35, and the hip-hop-inflected dance jam Motive, with Doja Cat supplying the sassy rap bridge Iggy Azalea once contributed to Problem. But Just Like Magic, on which Grande brags about getting whatever she wants, strikes a sour note, and the slow jam Off The Table succumbs to duet partner the Weeknds most lethargic impulses. From there the muted midtempo tracks start to pile up, often cycling through the same themes, until the lack of variation in topic and tempo starts to undermine otherwise well-executed songs like Nasty and West Side. Viewed charitably, its like spending day after day with your partner, immersed in quotidian routine, focused on the nuances of your own life rather than the world beyond your household. In practice, though, Positions is boring the way other peoples contentment is boring.

Although Grande sometimes descends into verbal blunders like So come here and give me some kisses/ You know Im very delicious, the albums flaws are more musical than lyrical. That much is clear because the highlights manage to burst through the languor even as they remain fixated on the same subjects. When Positions emerges near the end of the album, were reminded why it was the lead single. Longtime Grande compatriots TBHits and Mr. Franks team with Atlanta hip-hop mainstay London On Da Track to weave a stately string quartet and a speaker-melting trap beat into a breathy 90s R&B throwback, ending up with an arrangement so vibrant and engaging that the flimsy wordplay ceases to be a concern. My Hair stands out both for its warm retro vibe and its oddball specificity. Album closer POV is the sort of churchy traditionalist ballad Carey or Whitney Houston once slayed, and Grande proves herself a worthy heir.

Positions ultimately traces the same arc many stable relationships do: The albums initial rush levels off into normalcy, interrupted by occasional flashes of excitement. I can imagine subtle pleasures emerging as I live with the album over time, but I can also imagine just going back to My Everything and Dangerous Woman instead because very little here approaches the splendor and immediacy of Problem or Into You. It feels weird to say this about an album containing the lyrics, I wanna 69 with you, but even some of Grandes charming idiosyncrasies seem tempered here. Where is the wild card from the ice cream scandal? What happened to the bright hooks and bizarre production quirks? I hope things really do work out for Grande and her boyfriend, and I dont begrudge her choice to spend an album burrowing into the mellow rhythms of domesticity. But hopefully Positions is a detour and not the new normal, or else her career might start to follow that same trajectory from enthralling to comfortable stasis.
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