It’s never been a question whether Ariana Grande, pop music’s ever-respected overlord trendsetter and – for at least the last five years – reigning monarch, could piece together a textbook-definition R&B project.
She’s hinted at it. All of her five previous studio albums – hell, even her second Christmas EP – have treated fans to moments of soulful bliss while sandwiching themselves within a traditional pop exoskeleton, with 2019’s 'thank u, next' guiding her the closest she’s ever been to achieving a full-blown pop shake-off. For Grande, being able to satisfy both popstar Ari stans while still churning out harmonious soul ballads has always been one of her crowning achievements.
But seven years after her debut, the biggest question surrounding Grande’s sound has been less of an if, and more of a when she will deliver that definitive, once-and-for-all R&B album that her discography has seemingly progressed toward.
With her sixth studio album 'Positions', Grande delivers just that, with beautifully layered orchestral runs, harmonies sweeter than any morsel of candy to ever exist in Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, lyrical talking-points ranging from her own quarantine self-love playbook to, as the record’s title insists, sex, and a voice that for years has proven itself as R&B music’s best kept pop secret. And even with some tracks that may not fit the orchestral mold, and with fewer of those radio-running uptempo moments, which may not necessarily be what pop-head Arianators or other longtime listeners had on their AG6 wishlist, the project is still the singer’s most cohesive and – alongside 2018’s 'Sweetener' – inventive progression to date.
Grande opens 'Positions' with 'Shut Up', introducing listeners to the one-woman choir that floats through every track with ease. Clearly, the only person who can, and should, ever attempt to harmonize with Grande is Grande herself, and the most critical instruments throughout the project are those atmospheric backing-vocals she lays down between verses. The track closes out almost as scenic as the start of a classic Disney score, except instead of hearing Snow White sing to some birds next, listeners transition directly into a song about 69-ing.
Yes, '34 + 35', Grande’s most sexually explicit and mathematical track yet, hits just as hard as its lyrical prowess (“Can you stay up all night/Fuck me til the daylight”). The repeated string runs, matched with one of the most addictive NSFW choruses on the record, make Grande’s plea of “gimme dem babies” the baby-making-ist track on Positions.
And this string-centered orchestration throughout the record, a musical relationship that can be traced back to 'Yours Truly' opener 'Honeymoon Avenue', proves to be its glue. Tracks like the Weeknd-featuring ballad 'Off The Table' – featuring the two going back-and-forth about post-breakup healing, with Grande belting adlibs like she’s in some mid-’90s-crying-in-the-rain music video — thrive off their ability to keep production minimal for those home-run vocal moments. Throughout the record, Grande sings of entering new relationship territory as she operates the string section almost as a transportation device through all of what she’s feeling – uncertainty, exploration and even self-actualization at times.
She doesn’t do it alone. Also included on the record are Doja Cat, whose verse on 'Motive' tastefully starts with a “yuh” (probably an initiation process for Ari collaborators), and and Ty Dolla $ign, whose brief gig on 'Safety Net' might make the feature king the only other person who can sound that sticky next to Grande, second only to Grande herself, of course.
'Positions', on a few select tracks, also doubles as Grande’s soon-to-be introduction to Spotify Pollen playlist placements. 'My Hair', along with its lightly strummed jazzy chords, hears Grande giving her lover an open invitation to play with her signature ponytail, while she reaches a bit lower in her register before delivering an entire, 2020-saving whistle verse. The glorious note then transitions into the Rascals-produced 'Nasty', likely named in honor of the subsequent approving stank face listeners make the second its beat drops.
With whistles and strings tying everything together like the daydream it is, Positions flows from track-to-track effortlessly. Only a few selections shy away from its ultimate sonic goal, including 'Love Language', which feels almost like Grande’s entry into the disco-era/’70s marathon that we see plenty of pop superstars now participating in. But even the sore thumbs of the record don’t necessarily feel like sore spots.
'Positions' closes on the ultimate high note, as if Grande hadn’t hit several already, with second-to-last track 'Obvious' as the clear, and obvious, frontrunner for the album’s shining moment. It's a second-single-material love song with a chorus that would go toe-to-toe with anything at the top of Billboard’s Hot 100 on its most stacked days, even when Grande herself is on top. The mega-moment leads right into 'Positions' closing ballad 'POV', Grande’s plea to one day love herself just as much as her partner loves her. It’s an honest send off from an album that often walks a tightrope between sexy R&B centerpieces and the occasional manifestation anthem ('Just Like Magic' is magic in itself).
With 'Positions', Grande has positioned herself comfortably in a genre that she’s all too familiar with. Sure, it lacks the earth-shattering pop anthems like an 'Into You' or a 'No Tears Left To Cry', but Grande clearly never intended for those singular punches. While the album is pretty much removed from her usual major pop moments, it’s more refreshing that way, and there’s more of a connective-unit feel to Positions than much of her previous work. After all, Grande has always been an album artist, and this one is yet another to whistle home about.
Words: Brenton Blanchet
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