Ariana Grande has been busy the last three years. She dropped one of the best pop albums of the decade in 2016, her blockbuster masterpiece Dangerous Woman. After a two year hiatus and some very public tragedy, she dropped Sweetener in 2018, a much more divisive album among her fan base. Then in 2019, she dropped Thank U, Next which was much more universally praised than its predecessor. She’s broken numerous records and she dominates pop culture conversation, if one thing is clear: Ariana Grande is a force to be reckoned with.
It is much more difficult to be in the entertainment industry in 2020 however. With the COVID-19 pandemic halting everything from movies to trips, concert tours are a definite no go. Some pop artists have had a lot of success this year with album releases however. Taylor Swift dropped her best album yet with folklore, a moody masterpiece that will bring tears and a bittersweet smile to your eyes. Miley Cyrus has a nice comeback with her pop-rock single Midnight Sky. It isn’t all perfect though, Katy Perry dropped her new album Smile this summer with low sales and criticisms of generic sound and a lack of depth or evolution. How do you drop a fun pop album when everyone is trapped inside and scared for their lives? While Perry went for overwhelming positivity, Swift went for nostalgic melancholy and despair. Ariana Grande has chosen her own path with Positions, choosing to release an album that is chill, fun, and very sensual.
Positions is a solid record overall. I would say it doesn’t reach the dazzling heights of Dangerous Woman, but it rarely hits the lows that 2018’s Sweetener did. This album is loaded with strings, trap beats, and a nice helping of desire. The song that ties these elements together with the most ease is the second track on the album, “34+35”. This song is exactly what I wanted from this album. It’s pure, blunt, sexy fun. It’s got light, airy production – blending strings with a nice beat, not too heavy on bass. The lyrics are openly sexual and incredibly fun. If you want to know how sexually confident she is here, she compares her abilities in bed to a an earthquake – and it’s honestly delightful.
The themes explored on “34+35” are continued on two tracks around the middle of the album: “my hair” and the bluntly titled, “nasty”. I don’t know how to describe the former track besides groovy. The song uses a bass and saxophone, along with Grande’s lovely beckoning vocals to create a smooth, sexy tune. And on the latter track, Grande gets playful with her lyrics and her enunciation. When she declares that she wants to get “nasty”, it’s impossible not to sing along. The way she flows through the chorus without a care makes the listener both aroused and relaxed. It’s designed to be the perfect anthem for “Netflix and chill” nights. The next real winner on the album is the endlessly listenable “west side”. This track is laid back but bouncy – making a song that is perfect for driving around at night or jamming on your couch into the early hours of the morning. The highs on the album are Grande at her strongest, expressing her self-confidence and comfort with showcasing her sexuality.
Before getting to the few downright bad songs on the album, I need to touch on some middling tracks. The lead single and title track, “positions”, is catchy enough but also falls prey to some of Grande’s occasional weaknesses. The trap-string hybrid sound on the album gets a bit repetitive after a while, and this song is far too low on the track list not to feel like a retread. Couple this with some hard to understand enunciation from Grande and the track ends up being listenable but forgettable. The duet with The Weeknd, “off the table” has some nice lyrics and good vocals but the production feels rather stale. I never felt grabbed by the song, which is quite the disappointment considering the duo’s song, “Love Me Harder”, is a classic bop that got me into Ariana Grande in the first place. There’s a much better duet present on the album, “safety net” with rapper Ty Dolla $ign – who does a surprisingly good job matching Grande vocally on this wonderfully moody song. The album opener, “shut up”, is a fun jab at Grande’s harshest critics. She’s tired of people going after her for every little thing she does and is bluntly telling them she’s no longer listening. The humor and bite are there to a degree but the song lacks the energy it needs to become a repeat listen.
Now, onto the songs that I found myself struggling to get through on the album. “six thirty” and “motive” are both just too damn repetitive. The former track is flat musically and features the worst lyrics on the album. It reminds me of the weakest moments from her Sweetner album – and I don’t see myself ever revisiting it. The latter track simply bored me and felt somewhat lazy. The chorus is overly repetitive, the production never goes anywhere, and the usually electric Doja Cat feels oddly watered down here. Besides these two songs, the only other clunker here is the penultimate track, “obvious”. Grande has some nice vocals on the chorus, but the production feels far too generic – a common problem for the album. While the production overall is solid and cohesive, there are a few songs that are near indistinguishable from one another.
Overall, Positions is a solid entry into Grande’s discography. I don’t think it will be remembered as triumphantly as Dangerous Woman, but it won’t be nearly as divisive as Sweetener. It’s a mellow pop album that is good for people craving touch in a year where touch is the last thing you can do. The good songs here will hold up well over time, and the bad songs will more likely be forgotten without too much of a fuss. I can’t wait to see how she evolves in her next album – an evolution I think necessary after three trap-pop albums. Either way, it’s Ariana Grande and the album will more than likely be a juggernaut, and it’s a welcome distraction in such a gloomy year.