On ‘Positions,’ Ariana Grande Juggles Steamy Flirtations With Emotional Confessions

The trajectory of pop star careers have become as predictable as the story beats in a romantic comedy, so the difference between success and failure is less a matter of originality than execution. For a natural belter like Ariana Grande, the path she’s following was forged long ago by Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey, and Christina Aguilera. Like these artists before her, Grande is moving from polished, pre-fabricated vocal showcases and carefully cultivated, squeaky-clean public personas to a more liberated, more grown up one. 

Grande’s latest offering, “Positions,” in the next step in her evolution. It bears all of the generational hallmarks of Janet Jackson’s “Velvet Rope” or Aguilera’s “Stripped,” of moving forward with her own maturity as a songwriter, and as an individual, with both a similarly performative emphasis on sexier lyrical content, as well as a more adventurous spirit that is less desperate for approval — commercial or otherwise. “Positions” is not markedly different from her semi-perfect pop confection “Thank U, Next.” But when Ariana Grande’s latest offering makes some notable and important departures from her previous work, it showcases her with more ease and confidence, reminding fans why she is one of the most appealing singers working today — and a worthy successor to the pop mantle she has inherited.

It’s been three years since Grande recorded “Side to Side” with Nicki Minaj, a song about sex so good that she walks funny afterward (where Minaj rhymes “wrist icicle” with “dick bicycle”), so short of her own version of “WAP” there aren’t too many topics for the singer to focus on that would be truly surprising or push the envelope. But on the album’s most explicit tracks, “34+35” and “Nasty,” she strains harder than necessary in order to be provocative. It’s hard not to laugh when she declares unambiguously on the former, “it means I wanna 69 you,” as if the song’s title and the words “fuck me ’til the daylight” in the chorus weren’t clear enough. But the gift that Grande has is that her voice conveys pure wholesomeness, so when she drops explicit suggestions in regular verses, they elicit exactly that kind of delightful surprise, or they register subliminally. If she’s standing on the shoulders of potty-mouthed giants — upping the ante on their more subtle libidinous overtures — her beatific melodies suggest otherwise.

In terms of covering all of the necessary bases for a contemporary pop album, one supposes that a clapback at haters is obligatory in the era of social media, and Grande opens the album with hers. Backed by a string quintet seemingly taking cues from Jon Brion, “Shut Up” asks, “How you been spending your time? How you be using your tongue?” It’s a cheeky jab that precedes “34+35” and the Doja Cat duet “Motive,” the first of the album’s many earworms. No matter which mode she’s exploring — trap romance, dance floor filler or introspective ballad — Grande transitions effortlessly from one to the next. “Motive” plays both as a party starter and a confession of conflicted attraction; “Just Like Magic” grooves with the earned confidence of a young artist who gets everything she wants because she attracts it; and then on “Off the Table,” she and the Weeknd almost convince us that these two attractive, wealthy and talented people have real doubts about finding love after a string of failed relationships.

Further in, “Six Thirty” finds playful truths in the ups and downs of relationships over a straightforward trap beat, as she asks an imaginary partner if he will stick around despite her mercurial behavior. The slinky “My Hair” evokes the jazzy soul of Erykah Badu as she invites a lover to partake in some uniquely intimate physical touching — of her famously manicured locks. It’s these slightly left-of-center songs that really elevate the whole album, because the rest is comprised of more than enough sure-to-be hit singles, and these venture into unexpected territory that breaks up what otherwise might become slightly repetitive. Where the feel good come ons of “West Side” sound particularly familiar, “POV” pinpoints a very specific sensation — understanding what her partner sees in her, and how he sees her — in a way that’s really thoughtful and also resonates for anybody who wishes they could feel the same confidence in the way they see themselves that a good partner feels about them.

With only two real uptempo tracks on the album, “Motive” and the groovy, house-influenced “Love Language,” the disappointment in “Positions” is that there are too few opportunities to really boogie to her music, especially when Grande’s register rises to the level of a sensual disco whisper without losing any of its power. “Love Language” in particular feels like a perfect hybrid between early ‘90s Mariah Carey and someone like Donna Summer in full “Love to Love You Baby” mode, the kind of song that would have straddled the MTV and VH1 audiences two decades ago, and satisfied both. But if Grande’s latest is not quite the mind-blowing musical salvation of 2020 that many may have been waiting for, it’s still a welcome escape and an effervescent collection of songs that reiterate some enduring pop truths while occasionally touching on a few new ones. With “Positions,” Ariana Grande reminds us that even if pop stars too frequently find themselves on a familiar career path, it’s not proving how grown up they are that makes us continue to enjoy them, it’s bringing us along for the ride so we feel like we’re growing up with them too.

Positions” releases Oct. 30 on Apple Music.