Premature Evaluation

Premature Evaluation: Ariana Grande Positions

“Shut Up” is both an overture and a feint. At the outset of Ariana Grande’s new album, her nimble powerhouse voice stacks up upon itself in an orchestral hall of mirrors, cascading and dissolving amidst the pizzicato plucks. With her critics in the crosshairs, she speak-sings, “How you be using your time? You be so worried ’bout mine,” before declaring with forceful agility, “You know you sound so dumb/ So maybe you should shut up.” It is not hard to imagine her loyal stan army, the Arianators, directly quoting these lyrics at anyone who dares speak ill of their hero, but typed out on a screen they’ll never convey Grande’s virtuosity as she stretches out the last word of each line into high-wire vocal ballet.

Musically, the song tells us something significant about Positions, Grande’s sixth album, out Friday: This will be a collection dominated by strings. Again and again the orchestral backing returns, sometimes subtly, darting and weaving into the arrangement of disparate songs as if standing in for Grande’s backup dancers. It’s not symphonic music or chamber-pop by any stretch, and the violins and such don’t appear on every single track, but they’re definitely a recurring flourish — pirouetting disco-style over the boom-bap R&B of “Love Language,” weeping in the background of the brisk club banger “Motive,” lending an air of luxuriant sophistication to an explicit sex romp called “34+35.” (You do the math.)

Yet if the sonic texture of “Shut Up” sets the course for Positions, the track’s perturbed mood is a major outlier. Almost everything else on the album is about the thrills and anxieties that arise when you’re settling into a mature adult relationship. Grande is madly in love with high-powered LA real estate agent Dalton Gomez and believes their romance could be more durable than the ones name-checked on “thank u, next.” She made this album while she and Gomez were quarantining together, reveling in a prolonged domestic intimacy that must be foreign for a superstar used to living on the go. The circumstances are notably less tumultuous than the ones that spawned Grande’s last two albums, 2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s thank u, next, a stretch that famously included a terrorist bombing at one of her concerts, the death of her ex-boyfriend Mac Miller from a drug overdose, and a broken engagement to SNL‘s Pete Davidson. The resulting album is more low-key, a set of largely understated songs about contentment and the fear of it slipping away.

Positions slots in alongside recent happy-couple dispatches like Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour, Camila Cabello’s Romance, and Justin Bieber’s Changes: albums consumed with a life-altering love, basking in a partner’s glow while also freaking out at the prospect of longterm happiness and the threat of everything going wrong. It’s not a career-defining masterpiece like Golden Hour nor an embarrassing creative misstep like Changes, and it boasts a more distinct, appealing sonic identity than the scattershot Romance, albeit one that doesn’t leap from the speakers with the urgency of Grande’s best work.

Grande spends Positions enjoying rapturous sex, tentatively letting her guard down, and “praying we don’t fuck this up.” On “Motive,” she wonders whether her new beau is too good to be true. On “Six Thirty,” she lets herself start imagining a lifetime together, but her fantasies are tainted by doubt: “What you gonna do when I’m bored and I want to play video games at 2AM? What if I need a friend? Will you ride ’til the end? Am I enough to keep your love? When I’m old and stuff, will you still have a crush?” The shadowy Ty Dolla $ign duet “Safety Net” spells out what could be a thesis statement for the album: “I’ve never been this scared before/ Feelings I just can’t ignore/ Don’t know if I should fight or flight/ But I don’t mind.”

Despite her apprehension, the album often finds Grande inching toward deeper intimacy. “Just let me be in your life like that/ Be your wife like that,” she urges on the casual slow-creep “West Side,” just after beckoning, “I wanna get nasty, what you waitin’ for?” on the woozy and 40-esque “Nasty.” On the title track and lead single, she professes her versatility as a partner and proclaims, “Boy, I’m tryna meet your mama on a Sunday/ Then make a lotta love on a Monday.” The playfully jazzy “My Hair” may be the most vulnerable moment of all, with Grande inviting her man to run his hands through her signature ponytail. “Usually don’t let people touch it,” she sings, “but tonight you get a pass.”

Grande’s performances throughout are impeccable as usual. She strings together dynamic vocal flourishes — delicate flutters, spiraling powerhouse melodies, punchy half-spoken darts and weaves — with a fluidity that feels free-associative even as it adapts to the music with a composer’s ear. She also seems to have cleaned up the slurred enunciation that was once the subject of wisecracks. Arguably she’s never sounded more in control of her superpower, that ability to put classic soul and R&B expressiveness in conversation with modern hip-hop trends the way her whistle-singing forebear Mariah Carey once did. But the sonic environments she’s cutting loose in here are some of the least stimulating of her career. The string section, which could have pushed this album’s sound to fascinating places, more often blurs into the mix. The writing drifts along more often than it pops. On balance it’s a solid but unremarkable Ariana Grande album, a cut above much of the pop-R&B landscape but a disappointment given the run she’s been on lately.

Things get off to an energetic start with the immaculate “Shut Up,” the contagiously fun “34+35,” and the hip-hop-inflected dance jam “Motive,” with Doja Cat supplying the sassy rap bridge Iggy Azalea once contributed to “Problem.” But “Just Like Magic,” on which Grande brags about getting whatever she wants, strikes a sour note, and the slow jam “Off The Table” succumbs to duet partner the Weeknd’s most lethargic impulses. From there the muted midtempo tracks start to pile up, often cycling through the same themes, until the lack of variation in topic and tempo starts to undermine otherwise well-executed songs like “Nasty” and “West Side.” Viewed charitably, it’s like spending day after day with your partner, immersed in quotidian routine, focused on the nuances of your own life rather than the world beyond your household. In practice, though, Positions is boring the way other people’s contentment is boring.

Although Grande sometimes descends into verbal blunders like “So come here and give me some kisses/ You know I’m very delicious,” the album’s flaws are more musical than lyrical. That much is clear because the highlights manage to burst through the languor even as they remain fixated on the same subjects. When “Positions” emerges near the end of the album, we’re reminded why it was the lead single. Longtime Grande compatriots TBHits and Mr. Franks team with Atlanta hip-hop mainstay London On Da Track to weave a stately string quartet and a speaker-melting trap beat into a breathy ’90s R&B throwback, ending up with an arrangement so vibrant and engaging that the flimsy wordplay ceases to be a concern. “My Hair” stands out both for its warm retro vibe and its oddball specificity. Album closer “POV” is the sort of churchy traditionalist ballad Carey or Whitney Houston once slayed, and Grande proves herself a worthy heir.

Positions ultimately traces the same arc many stable relationships do: The album’s initial rush levels off into normalcy, interrupted by occasional flashes of excitement. I can imagine subtle pleasures emerging as I live with the album over time, but I can also imagine just going back to My Everything and Dangerous Woman instead because very little here approaches the splendor and immediacy of “Problem” or “Into You.” It feels weird to say this about an album containing the lyrics, “I wanna 69 with you,” but even some of Grande’s charming idiosyncrasies seem tempered here. Where is the wild card from the ice cream scandal? What happened to the bright hooks and bizarre production quirks? I hope things really do work out for Grande and her boyfriend, and I don’t begrudge her choice to spend an album burrowing into the mellow rhythms of domesticity. But hopefully Positions is a detour and not the new normal, or else her career might start to follow that same trajectory from enthralling to comfortable stasis.

Positions is out 10/30 on Republic.

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