Not to get too alliterative about it, but Ariana Grande is all about the positivity on “Positions,” an album that is simultaneously her most down-tempo and her most upbeat. There will be no ghostin’, boredom-fueled breakup or tears here, not to mention a complete lack of the rainy motifs she’s employed on her own or recently shared with duet partner Lady Gaga. Not that you’d necessarily call it a sunny record, per se, either: Grande is way too locked up in the bedroom with her new flame in this highly smitten, highly sexualized album. She has definitely moved on from the take-love-or-leave-it “Thank U, Next” to crushing — and grinding — on whoever actually has ended up being next.
No wonder her photo is right-side-up again on the album cover, with as much love and lust as in these song. If you’re a fan of classic “quiet storm”-style R&B albums, Grande has a doozy of a modern-day one with this surprisingly tranquil (if unsurprisingly sensual update) on the form. While four-on-the-floor disco is making a comeback elsewhere in pop, Grand is favoring a slower, sparser style that allows plenty of room for her self-arranged, multi-tracked vocal trills amid the rhythmic lurching. On a couple of occasions amid the 14 tracks, she does succumb to a dance-floor beat — in “Motive,” her collaboration with Doja Cat, and “Love Language,” welcome instances of picking up the pace, both. But you wouldn’t mistake it for a club album; it’s more of a stay-in, tongue-flicks-and-chill kind of a record.
Along with the sexy time and tentative steps back toward re-embracing romanticism in full, there will be arithmetic, even though, in one outro, Grande murmurs, “Math class — never was good.” The woman doth protest too much about her lack of skills: “34 + 35” naughtily adds up to exactly what you think it adds up to … and she does literalize the addition at the very end of the track, unnecessarily, in case anyone missed the joke. (It’s not the only time she visits that subject on the album; “Love Language” is not actually about her significant other being multilingual.) On a more innocent but equally playful level, “6:30” has her repeatedly asking, “Are you down? What’s up?” — with the title phrase meant to signify the moment when both hands on the clockface are, you know, down with that. Give her credit for coming up with a very analog symbol for looking for love in a song that’s throwback in more ways than one.
You may find yourself doing the math in other ways, listening to “Positions,” because it’s an album that adheres to the leave-‘em-wanting-more maxim to such an extreme that you might be looking up the actual lengths of the songs more than once. Of the 14 tracks, a majority, eight, clock in at under three minutes — a length that’d count as an interlude on just about anybody else’s contemporary album. The longest song, “Off the Table,” stretches itself to exactly four minutes, and that’s just to give that song’s duet partner, The Weeknd, nearly equal time. If you caught Grande’s last tour, you know that she already has a tendency to condense songs to their core, but if she condenses these the next time around, you might actually blink and miss them. In the aforementioned “34 + 35,” Grande extols the merits of duration, singing, “Can you stay up all night? F— me until the daylight” — but when it comes to music these days, Grande is all about the quickies. And “Positions” benefits from that economy and repeatability. It’s full of expertly conceived songs you wish would at least try to overstay their welcome, though there’s never any real regret when she hits the “Thank u, next” button to move on to a successor.=
That’s not to say that there isn’t a hierarchy of tracks on the record. The opening “Shut Up,” a self-explanatory message to Grande’s questioners and detractors — and the only non-relationship-minded tune in the set — is a lot of fun musically, but its defensive message would not bear belaboring. “34 + 35,” which immediately follows, is, let’s face it, a little bit on the schoolgirl-sniggering side. “Just Like Magic,” Grande’s paean to the Law of Attraction, comes off as a little lopsidedly entitled for the year of BLM and COVID: “I get everything I want ‘cause I attract it” is a message that maybe could have been saved for a year other than 2020.
But these aren’t major missteps, and the album finds a surer footing shortly in. Musically, it’s on solid ground right from the start, as the opening “Shut Up” does strongly benefit not just from Grande’s talent for arranging her own stacked vocals, but from a use of strings that will occur throughout the album. Light orchestration or a strings-like sound is definitely on the rebound lately in R&B because of that whole neo-disco renaissance, but Grande and her producers are using what sometimes amounts to a 13-piece string section in more interesting and nuanced ways than that. The cellos, violas and violins add up to a great flavor in a good number of tracks here, from that first song to the finale, “POV,” a number with a slightly gospel-y undertone harking back to a different kind of classic, earnest R&B balladry than the friskier kind that fills out most of the album.
Standouts include all three of the tracks with featured appearances. Doja Cat’s raspy rap at the very end of “Motive” feels strangely more like a coda than an integrated verse, but that’s not really a detriment to a song that quickly picks up the album’s pace and then efficiently makes its exit. The Weeknd is in his most sensitive-guy mode in “Off the Table,” hearing out his ex — played by Ariana — as she sings “Not yet healed or ready / Shouldn’t be going too steady,” while he replies by alluding to past hits, be it his own “The Hills” or their previous shared “Love Me Harder” in the service of contending that he’s a newly chastened dude. Maybe the best of the three collabs is “Safety Net,” as close as this album gets to going for a haunted feel, with Ty Dolla Sign getting in some good similes as he promises a healing Grande that he’ll “put some ice on you,” as in jewelry, or as in something out of the freezer.
But when it comes to mixing a strange kind of intimacy and an irresistible musical ingenuity — and just achieving peak Ariana, in a song it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing — there is no beating “My Hair,” a track that equates her iconographic hairstyle to her innermost being. “Run your hands through my hair / Baby, ‘cause that’s why it’s there,” she sings. If that sounds simple and inviting enough, do note that she uses the word “scared” three times in the first verse and chorus… not for herself, but for how afraid her new guy might be to approach the sacred totem that is her pony. There’s an almost funny level of candor in that, since it’s fairly easy to imagine even a fellow who’d been allowed into the innermost sanctum still being terrified to go there, of all places. “Know this ain’t usually me, but I might let it down for ya” — probably not for any other performer, but for Ariana Grande, could there be any more vulnerable statement?
By being as musically and thematically focused as it is, “Positions” lacks the tour de force status that belonged to the “Sweetener” album in 2018 and, to a lesser extent, its 2019 “Thank U, Next” follow-up. Any outlier as dramatic as a “No Tears Left to Cry” or “God Is a Woman” will not be found here. But it’s a good sign that Grande isn’t trying to make the same or even a similar album each time out, as she knocks all these long-players out in such unusually productive succession. And the benefits of having an album as focused as this one may quickly be discovered by anyone who’s making use of quarantine for more romantic purposes… or even those who have only their own hair to twirl.