Ariana Grande is done with feeling sad. The first track on her sixth studio album, Positions, is a kind of palate cleanser: a tingly lemon sorbet of a track that requests that you ‘Shut Up’ before she moves on to what’s really on her mind.
What’s really on her mind is sex. And a lot of it. Positions is a sprawl of sultry sexjams and thinly veiled euphemisms, at times with the air of a teen giggling as she looks up ‘sex’ in the dictionary, at others creeping out from her insecurities to check that you’ll still be there when she wakes up in the morning.
While the 27-year-old Nickelodeon star turned Grammy-winner's previous two albums, Sweetener and Thank u, Next, dealt with her recovery from trauma and tragedy (her concert at Manchester Arena was bombed by a terrorist in 2017, killing 23 people and wounding over 800, while her ex-boyfriend and prominent American rapper Mac Miller died from an accidental drug overdose a year later) Positions turns staunchly away from dark emotions and looks into the light of new romance.
It’s heavily inspired by mid-90s RnB; the braggadocious itineraries of what she’ll do in the bedroom (one song is winkingly named 34+35; do your own maths) are reminiscent of an entire subgenre of male RnB singers – without any of its associated problems, and with a vertiginous whistle register.
Following the success of rapper Cardi B’s explicit homage to female pleasure with her chart-topping song WAP, Grande’s own provocative pop feels part of the same new mood. After decades of women finding themselves lyrically undressed and objectified in songs catering solely to male pleasure, they’re turning the tables to suit them.
Mindful of her young fanbase, however, Grande has tempered X-rated lyrics with string arrangements that occasionally drift into the realm of Disneyfication. It echoes, perhaps, the way that newfound attraction leads us into a false world of sunshine, lollipops and rainbows before the real work of a relationship sets in. Positions is a calm listen, without any of the belters that Grande was once known for, reflecting a time when we’re all retreating inwards, finding solace in the few people around us and the most comfortable corners of our homes.
For all Grande’s shiny new confidence, there are also brief moments of relatability. She relishes being accepted for her “ugly” on song POV and seeing her partners’ own defects on Six Thirty. But where Thank u, Next, a break-up album, name-checked her romantic failures, Positions keeps it all anonymous. (Grande is currently dating a real estate agent she met through a mutual friend.)
One of the album’s highlights is Motive, featuring American popstar and provocateur Doja Cat, a made-for-radio hit and one of the few tracks on the album to raise the tempo from a sleepy post-coital snuggle. The insecure Off the Table features some impressive vocal slaloming with RnB crooner The Weeknd, but though their voices complement each other beautifully, the song is a bit of a slog: an indulgent, Carey-esque showboat for the credits of a forgettable film.
Positions is not as immediate as the work Grande is known for, though it will find many fans. There are no tentpole hits, no obvious hooks and far too many words crammed into 14 relatively short and sometimes samey songs. But it explores new territory for the singer: new relationships, a new sound, a new sense of self. And most importantly for a star who has suffered, it’s a new corner, too.
Positions is out now