What’s Ariana Grande been up to? Having tons of quar sex and making a great album about it
Staying at home for months on end doesn’t appear to have been a disappointment for Ariana Grande.
In song after song on her very horny new album, “Positions,” the 27-year-old pop star exults in the intimate possibilities of a quiet night (or 200) in quarantine. “We got all we need right here,” she assures a lover in “West Side,” and she’s not referring to an embarrassment of streaming services.
Singing about sex is nothing novel, of course — not for pop stars in general nor specifically for Grande, whose former boyfriend Mac Miller was rapping about putting on a movie only to ignore it way back on Grande’s 2013 debut. (That the movie in question was “Bruce Almighty” shows how long Grande, a onetime Nickelodeon performer, has been a member of pop’s ruling class.)
On “Positions,” though, the bedroom setting registers as more than a fulfillment of her obligation to titillate; inspired or not by the reality of lockdown, her focus feels like an inward turn after the years of intense public scrutiny documented on Grande’s two previous LPs: 2018’s “Sweetener,” which followed the horrific terrorist bombing of a concert of hers in Manchester, England, and last year’s Grammy-nominated “Thank U, Next,” which grappled with Miller’s sudden death and with her breakup with the comedian Pete Davidson.
Sex as represented on her sixth full-length is an act of tenderness and enveloping — and also of monogamy. “Boy, I’m trying to meet your mama on a Sunday / Then make a lot of love on a Monday,” Grande sings in the title track, while “Obvious” insists, “Ain’t no price on my loyalty.”
In many of the album’s songs, Grande describes home as a kind of cocoon for two: a place to play video games at 2 a.m., as she puts it in “Six Thirty,” or the sanctuary in “Nasty” best enjoyed after she and her guy “get all the homies to bounce” (so that they might “switch from the bed to the couch”).
For someone so skilled at using social media to cultivate fans’ interest in her personal life, it’s striking — and more than a little moving — to hear her dreaming of seclusion. It also connects “Positions” to this year’s pre-COVID “Changes” by Grande’s old pal Justin Bieber, on which another young tabloid mainstay remakes privacy as the hottest of concepts.
And yet Grande knows that the outright raunchiness of some of her new material, especially in the year of “WAP,” is sure to rev the celebrity-industrial complex, stoking curiosity about her relationship with Dalton Gomez, the wonderfully named Los Angeles real-estate agent about whom she evidently wrote these songs.
Before all the heavy breathing begins, “Positions” opens with “Shut Up,” a jewel box of an orchestral-pop number in which the singer tells off people too concerned with how she spends her time. “You know you sound so dumb,” she trills in sweet multi-tracked harmony — a telling product of an age when the only thing worse than too much attention is no attention at all.
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Though Grande’s subject matter shifts after “Shut Up,” the song’s Disney-like strings carry through the rest of “Positions,” which is brighter and sprightlier than the comparatively bleary “Thank U, Next.” At times, the tidy arrangements can call back to her debut — no surprise, perhaps, given that she worked with a studio team led by her longest-term collaborator, Tommy Brown, and largely went without the A-list freelancers (such as Max Martin and Pharrell Williams) she’s employed in recent years.
Her singing too strikes a throwback note, with less of the almost-rapping she was doing in songs like the trappy “7 Rings” and more of the fluid R&B melisma she inherited from Mariah Carey. “My Hair” in particular is a showcase for Grande’s acrobatic vocals; it concludes with a series of lengthy runs in her highest register.
Yet Grande definitely wasn’t singing lyrics as vivid as these seven years ago. “Can you stay up all night? / F— me till the daylight?” she asks in “34+35,” whose title invites you to find a sum with a clear connotation; elsewhere she invokes shaking beds, candied body parts and “neighbors yelling ‘Earthquake!’”
Prudes can take comfort in the fact that Grande’s sexual liberation hasn’t come at the expense of her winningly earnest theater-kid eccentricities. In “34+35” she sings about swigging coffee to create the energy needed for such an extended workout. And “Off the Table,” a sharply detailed slow jam featuring the Weeknd, has Grande cycling through the questions she asks herself between a breakup and a makeup: “Am I too cold? Am I not nice?” (Other guests on the album include Doja Cat, who joins Grande for the club jam “Motive,” and Ty Dolla Sign, who lends his gritty croon to “Safety Net.”)
“Positions” closes with one of its strongest tracks in “POV,” a pretty, pillowy ballad in which Grande longs to see herself through her lover’s eyes.
“I want to trust me the way you trust me,” she sings, and there’s something vaguely Prince-like about that setup. It’s a welcome frisson on an album about humanity’s oldest pastime — and a reminder that every couple is a world unto itself.
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