“34+35,” the second track on Ariana Grande’s new album, Positions, begins with a giggle.
Even if simple math isn’t necessarily your forte, if you've ever been on the internet for longer than five minutes, you might instinctively mutter “nice” once the reference clicks. For the few people who may still be struggling with what Grande means, she makes it very clear when she sings the opening line: “You might think I’m crazy / The way I’ve been craving / If I put it quite plainly / Just give me them babies.”
The clever metaphor for one of the most culturally recognizable sexual positions continues with Grande milking the moment, gliding through the next verse as she sings, “You drink it just like water / You say it tastes like candy.” The sexual innuendo is purposefully unmistakable, and the authority with which Grande sings about sex is refreshing, especially for a singer who often toes the line between being subtle and risqué. Frankly, it’s quite nice and fun to hear her being so explicit. “Can you stay up all night / Fuck me till the daylight?” she asks her paramour throughout the track. On another track, the highly anticipated “Nasty,” Grande sings, “I just wanna make time for you / Swear it’s just right for you / Like this pussy designed for you.” All while asking her would-be admirer, “What you waitin’ for?”
In 2014, New York Times writer Jon Caramanica profiled Grande ahead of the release of her second album, My Everything, and she was still very much coy about sex in her music at the time. “One of Ms. Grande’s go-to strategies is to use collaborators to say what she can’t quite, and it’s effective trickery. She gets the reflected frisson, while still largely maintaining innocence,” Caramanica wrote. In the same piece, Grande’s longtime manager, Scooter Braun, added that this cautious approach to her music was taken because “of the way she was raised, she’s still a lady.” Braun continued: “A lady says, ‘I know what’s going on, but I don’t need to say it right in front of you.’”
Grande herself echoed a similar sentiment, telling Caramanica, “I wanted it to be ‘Oh, wow, listen to this,’ not, ‘Oh, wow, look at this.’”
With Positions, her 14-track sixth album, Grande undoubtedly destroys the notion that she needs a collaborator to say the things she, presumably, may have been too chaste to utter before. This isn’t to say the singer hasn’t ever released songs that were sexually suggestive — because she has. “Side to Side,” the 2016 song featuring Nicki Minaj, is all about getting fucked so well it throws off your gait. (It’s also Minaj who rhymes the catchy and salacious phrase “Wrist icicle / Ride dick bicycle” while Grande sweetly riffs.) And on the title track of her 2018 album, Sweetener, she uses baking to convey a message about the ecstasy of oral sex. “I like the way you lick the bowl / Somehow your method touches my soul,” she sings. And how could we forget that time she fingered the planet in the video for “God Is a Woman”?
For the singer’s latest album, her third major release in as many years — excluding K Bye for Now (SWT Live) — Grande has crafted an album that credibly enriches her distinctively R&B catalog by serving up new tunes that unabashedly flaunt lyrical vulgarity while also going deeper with moments of relatable emotional vulnerability.
Grande kicked off her album release a week ago, simultaneously debuting the lead single along with its music video. The video, which came out a few hours after the final presidential debate, was very much in line with the theme of the night. It presents Grande as the president, intercut with various scenes highlighting pop music’s reigning commander in chief doing it all, “switching them positions for you.” One scene seemingly tries to capture the nepotism of the White House showcasing the singer in the Situation Room, flanked by her friends, family members, and frequent collaborators, including Victoria Monét, Tayla Parx, who both co-wrote more than a handful of the songs on the album, and her mother, Joan.
Grande has crafted an album that credibly enriches her distinctively R&B catalog.
In another, she’s seen walking down the hall with all-women aides. Next, she’s sporting a pillbox hat, evoking Jackie O while standing at the podium in the press room; then, suddenly, Grande’s slurping a noodle as she — with perfect hair and makeup — cooks up a meal, flinging flour everywhere. Later in the video, she places a medal around the neck of someone dressed in a US Postal Service uniform, a not-so-subtle way of honoring the real-life postal workers of the financially at-risk government agency. The video is fun, and a little unexpected, considering one might have thought Grande would steer clear of American iconography after her 2015 donut-licking debacle in which she was seen on camera licking two donuts before saying, “I hate America.” The singer later apologized for the “poor choice of words.” And after all America has, uh, experienced in the last four years, she has surely been forgiven for the transgression.
And if you haven’t let it go, Grande points you to her new album’s opening track, titled “Shut Up.” It’s a lyrically brazen song, opening with brooding strings. “My presence’s sweet and my aura bright / Diamonds cut from my appetite,” the singer begins. “Guess it fucking just clicked one night / All them demons helped me see shit differently / So don’t be sad for me.” It serves as a great kiss-off for a singer whose life, while experiencing a tremendous amount of success, has also seen several lows, including surviving a terrorist attack and navigating several highly publicized breakups. She has been forced to find the strength to heal after back-to-back traumas. “I vibrate high and my circle lit,” Grande sings, effectively differentiating this project in tone from her light and airy Sweetener and its somewhat darker twin, Thank U, Next.
“POV,” the final song on the album, cowritten and produced by Tommy “TBHits” Brown, who has worked with the singer since her 2013 debut, could be about her latest boyfriend, Dalton Gomez, whom she’s been connected with since at least early February. With this relationship, it seems Grande has been trying to keep things close to the vest, especially after the public fallout around her previous relationships. “I wanna love me the way that you love me,” Grande sings. “For all of my pretty and all of my ugly too / I love to see me from your point of view.”
On “Motive,” Grande and the noncancelable rapper Doja Cat work well together. In place of the typical Grande dance songs — ones like “Into You” or “No Tears Left to Cry,” both produced by Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh — this earworm, produced by Murda Beatz, the Canadian DJ behind hits like Drake's "Nice for What" and Migos' "MotorSport," feels much more natural to her R&B sensibility. Here, the thumping beat paired with the breathy approach from Grande and Doja Cat is infectious. It also furthers the ostensible intent of Grande’s new offering, which, at least in part, seems to illustrate the cautionary measures the pop star takes before moving things to the next level. “But before I lead you on / Tell me what’s your motive,” she sings.
On another standout track, “Safety Net” featuring Ty Dolla $ign, she lays out the complicated feelings of being hesitant to fall for someone again because she’s been stung by love in the past. From a lyrical standpoint, it’s a clever callback to her song “In My Head,” where she essentially sings about falling in love with a version of the person who’s completely different from who’s being presented to you. (Haven’t we all been there?!) On the Rascals’ tranquil production of “Safety Net,” she sings, “Trippin’, fallin’ with no safety net / Is it real this time, or is it in my head?” As Hannah Giorgis wrote in the Atlantic in 2018, Ty has a voice that “provides a kaleidoscopic range of musical possibilities to any artist he works with.” With Grande, he responds with a mesmerizing auto-tuned vocal, “Let your guard down, girl.”
Grande’s unabashed sexuality is just another entry into the horniest music of the year, coming on the heels of a sweltering summer punctuated by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “wet and gushy” sex anthem, “WAP.” On “My Hair,” a stellar song from start to finish, produced by Scott Storch (Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter,” Beyoncé's "Naughty Girl"), Grande sings, “Don’t you be scared to run your hands through my hair, baby / ‘Cause that’s why it’s there.” Reader, I had to run this one back a couple of times before proceeding with my initial listen of the album because it’s just that good. The suggestive lyrics continue, with the pop star singing, “Usually don’t let people touch it / But tonight you get a pass” right before she launches into an impressive use of her whistle register, singing the chorus in a way that’s orgasmic and very much reminiscent of Mariah Carey’s “Bliss” and Minnie Riperton’s “Lovin’ You.”
Grande excels at showing off the various colors of her voice on this album, which also feels much more intimate than her previous works. But while this album is arguably some of her best, it isn’t without its rare moments of meh. “Off the Table,” her second collaboration with the Weeknd, while sung proficiently by Grande, is a dull follow-up to 2014’s “Love Me Harder.”
Before the release of Positions, Grande was already having a sterling year — she’s maybe the only person having a good 2020??? She was featured on Lady Gaga’s “Rain on Me,” which became the first all-women collab to debut at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Prior to that, she released the quarantine bop “Stuck With U'' with Justin Bieber, which also shot straight to No. 1 on the same chart. Because of that, she’s now the only woman artist to have four songs debut at No. 1, a record previously held by Carey, who has had three songs debut atop the Hot 100. Speaking of Carey, there’s a rumor swirling about that Grande, along with Jennifer Hudson, will be joining the Queen of Christmas for an Apple TV+ special later this year, potentially ensuring her year will end on a literal high note. Grande’s new effort will undoubtedly spawn additional hits for a singer, who, as Nicki Minaj once put it, “run pop.” Grande seems to be just as confident. “I get everything I want,” she sings on “Just Like Magic, “‘cause I attract it.” ●