Ariana Grande review, Positions: Woozy and flirtatious but lacking in surprise

Ariana Grande in her music video for single ‘Positions' (Republic Records)
Ariana Grande in her music video for single ‘Positions' (Republic Records)

Positions is the first Ariana Grande album in at least four years to arrive without real-world baggage. Throughout her commercial peak, dominated by hits like “7 Rings” and “No Tears Left to Cry”, Grande’s musical output has been inextricable from her personal life. Sweetener (2018) was marked by grief, recorded in the wake of the terrorist attack at her Manchester Arena concert, and released weeks before the death of her former boyfriend Mac Miller. The following year’s Thank U, Next was at least partially inspired by the breakdown of her high-profile fling/engagement/whatever with comedian Pete Davidson. All that context, ranging from the genuinely tragic to the loudly baffling, never overshadowed the work, but they came as piecemeal.

In contrast, her sixth record Positions should be a breeze. Grande’s private life has been on mute for a while (she’s quietly dating a real estate agent), her trauma is no longer endlessly written about in the tabloids, and she’s not burdened by commercial expectations any more (everything she touches turns to gold, maybe sans that speedily forgotten Charlie’s Angels soundtrack from last year). Yet despite never being freer as an artist, there is a safety to Positions that means it only occasionally takes off.

The surprise of this album’s arrival – Grande announced its existence just 16 days ago – is a smidge more surprising than the music itself. This is a record firmly in her vibey R&B wheelhouse, dominated by sparse midtempos and fluttering melodies. Production duties remain in the hands of those she’s always worked with (TBHits, who’s been on staff since her debut, is credited on every track) – though Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh, the ubiquitous Swedes behind many of her biggest pure-pop hits, are no-shows. Lockdown probably didn’t help in terms of collaborators, with Positions seemingly recorded at home or over Zoom, comfort zones fully stayed in.

There’s a touch of Spotify syndrome here too, with songs kept short and succinct to benefit playlisting. The glittery “Just Like Magic” is full of finger-snaps, sparkles and cute affirmations (“Just like magic, I’m attractive / I get everything I want ‘cos I attract it”), but it’s over before it truly gets going. “West Side” is like a lost Timbaland track from 2003, its stop-and-start beat reminiscent of vintage Brandy, but it’s punishingly brief at just over two minutes.

The handful of tracks that are genuinely transcendent see Grande venturing into new spaces. Opener “Shut Up” builds to a swirling and romantic string crescendo. The sax-assisted “My Hair” is a woozy neo-soul triumph, Grande’s voice raspy and orgasmic as if she’s a jazz singer with a bad hangover (the glorious whistle-register outro is, frankly, just showing off). The bouncy disco-funk of “Love Language” is the offspring of Azealia Banks’ “Liquorice” and Beyoncé’s “Blow”, a track conceived on the Studio 54 dancefloor and the most immediately thrilling on the album. And while appearances by The Weeknd (at his most annoyingly quivering on the sleepy “Off the Table”) and Doja Cat (croaking her way through the electro-house of “Motive”) disappoint, Grande plays off Ty Dolla Sign wonderfully on the spooky “Safety Net”, a blissful bit of harmonising about apprehension and surrender.

<p>Ariana Grande’s ‘Positions’</p>Republic Records

Ariana Grande’s ‘Positions’

Republic Records

The latter also speaks to Grande’s power as a lyricist. While her dexterous vocals remain spectacular, her words get to the root of her appeal. There’s a push-and-pull dynamic throughout Positions, Grande by turns skittish and all-in when it comes to a new lover. She can be cheeky and playful (the dirty-minded “34+35” – just add it up – is cutely tongue-in-cheek before abandoning coyness altogether), and regretful yet hopeful (“I’m getting used to receiving / still getting good at not leaving,” she whispers on the rainfall-assisted closer “POV”). Positions sometimes feels like listening in on somebody’s Voice Notes, as Grande speed-sings through her most intimate confessions.

It’s why Grande has always felt particularly sympathetic, a true work-in-progress open about her melancholies and misfires. She’s likeable and compelling as an artist, even when she’s at her most creatively static, settling on what is comfortable rather than anything slightly dangerous. Like all of us this year, she probably just needs to get out of the house more.

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