Album Review: Ariana Grande Completes A Career-Defining Trilogy With ‘Positions’

COVID-19 may have slowed down the creative process for some artists, but not Ariana Grande. The Grammy-winning singer-songwriter recently launched her sixth studio album, Positions. Even without this album, 2020 would have been an incredible for Grande. Her Lady Gaga (“Rain On Me”) and Justin Bieber (“Stuck With U”) duets became her third and fourth singles to debut at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and she was a bright moment on Childish Gambino’s 3.15.20 album. Ariana also picked up four MTV Video Music Awards for “Rain On Me” and “Stuck With U” and she guest starred on Jim Carrey’s Kidding. And then October hit and Ariana pressed “send” on a tweet that flipped the world on its head; “can’t wait to give u my album this month,” she wrote. By the end of the month we were treated to Ariana’s sixth album and the music video for the record’s lead single and title track.

More self-assured and sonically adventurous than ever before, Positions is a glowing finale to a career-defining album trilogy. The record exists in direct conversation with Grande’s Sweetener (2018) and thank u, next (2019) as it explores her return to romance, search for peace and wholeness, and life and love after healing from the trauma and tragedy that colored her previous two albums. Featuring writing credits from Victoria Monét, Grande herself, Nija Charles and Tayla Parx, production contributions from Tommy Brown, London on da Track, Murda Beatz, and The Rascals, and duets with The Weeknd, Doja Cat, and Ty Dolla $ign, Positions is undoubtedly Ariana’s most consistent body of work bar Sweetener.

To introduce Positions, Ariana opts to bring us back to how she opened her debut album. The cinematic strings of “Shut Up” bear striking similarities to the strings of “Honeymoon Avenue,” the first song on Yours Truly. Between the gorgeous strings and the purposely girly tone, Ariana sounds like a Disney princess, but the lyrics slyly sit in direct juxtaposition to that expectation. On the song, primarily the hook, Ariana addresses the negativity that hounds her with a simple demand: “Shut Up.” The verses, however, offer a bit more insight and context as to how Ariana reached this point of self-assuredness after so much tragedy. In the first verse, she sings “all them demons helped me see shit differently, so don’t be sad for me” a direct reference to the hell she’s gone through in recent years. From the death of her best friend and ex-boyfriend Mac Miller to a terrorist attack at her concert that killed many of her young fans and left her with intense anxiety and PTSD and a failed whirlwind engagement to Pete Davidson, a cloud of trauma has hung over Ariana’s head for the past few years. The plucky strings on “Shut Up” provide some notes of hopefulness but it’s the bright riff on the lyric “shut up” and her harmonization with the violins at the end of the hook that really drive home the forward-looking vibe of the song. “Shut Up’s” strings and harp eventually fade into a slightly warped outro that makes way for a duo of sexually charged tracks.

Republic

“34+35,” the album’s second single, is an uptempo R&B track about (you guessed it!) the 69 sex position. Blending the sexually explicit swagger of Rihanna with the smooth rap-singing delivery of Beyoncé, Ariana hits a homerun on this track. There isn’t much to say about this track that it doesn’t already say for itself, she literally croons “Can you stay up all night? Fuck me ’til the daylight,” but its melody is simply irresistible. This is the most explicit Ariana has ever been on a track, but it didn’t come out of nowhere… remember “Hands On Me” from My Everything? The third verse is the best part of “34+35” with its clever lyrics and slick rap-sung cadence, but nothing tops the outro where Ariana confirms that song title means that she “wants to 69 with ya. No shit.” And then, there was “Motive.” If there is a low point on Positions, it’s here. The song isn’t bad, by any means, but Doja feels misused. Produced by Murda Beatz (Drake’s “Nice For What”; Cardi B’s “I Do”), “Motive” is a house-inflected banger that pulls from the sensuality of Janet Jackson’s janet album. While “motive” isn’t as lyrically interesting as its predecessor, the song sees an artist and producer truly pushing each other into new territory. Sonically, the closest Ariana has come to “Motive’s” sound is “Be Alright” from Dangerous Woman, but the suggestive subject matter on “Motive” is a far cry from the bright-eyed optimism of “Be Alright.” Murda, on the other hand, is best known for producing trap-influenced rap anthems, so to see him lend his hand to a slinky dance beat is really cool. Doja has had a breakthrough year with “Say So,” “Like That,” and “Cyber Sex,” but her rap verse on “Motive” feels somewhere between unnecessary and misplaced. Maybe, it’s both. Ariana and Doja are more than capable of making magic together, but it may have worked better if Doja sang on “motive” instead of rapping.

Once we move past “Motive,” there isn’t anything that resembles a miss on Positions. “Just Like Magic” is a glittery trap-influenced ode to manifestation. The bouncy track feels relatively sparse, despite the sputtering bass line, following tracks with busier production like “Shut Up” and “Motive,” but it packs a much bigger punch lyrically. “Just Like Magic” isn’t just about, for lack of a better word, magically getting whatever you want. The song details the importance of having “good karma,” a “slim ego,” and a “clear conscience,” to properly attract what you’re trying to manifest. The track even bears some parallels to Ariana’s massive “7 rings” beyond the obvious “I want it, I got it” refrain. Where “7 rings” was concerned with using money to get whatever you want and treating your friends as a side effect of retail therapy, “Just Like Magic” values the important lesson of sending “love and light” when you’re “losing friends left and right.” It should also be noted that “Just Like Magic” bears a parallel to another one of Ariana’s biggest hits: “thank u, next.” On the iconic single, Ariana sings “wish I could say thank you to Malcolm, cause he was an angel,” and she echoes that sentiment on “Just Like Magic” with the line “take my pen and write some love letters to Heaven.” This is one of the places where the sequencing works particularly well on Positions, “Just Like Magic” and “Off The Table” are the two emotional and narrative anchors of the Positions chapter of the album trilogy, so they had no choice but to be placed next to each other.

“Off The Table,” a duet with The Weeknd, is the emotional anchor and centerpiece of Positions. This is the song that holds the whole record together, nothing makes sense without it. Penned by just Ariana and The Weeknd, “Off The Table” sees the reunion of two 2010s pop titans half a decade after their first collaboration, “Love Me Harder.” At the cross-section of robust synths and lush strings, “Off The Table” details Ariana questioning her strength and readiness to dive into a new relationship and sees The Weeknd revealing his own personal growth and willingness to move at her pace. From the opening line, “Will I ever love the same way again,” Ariana plunges into the deepest emotional depths of Sweetener and thank u, next on this track. The Weeknd’s verse directly references thank u, next’s “ghostin” when he sings “I’ll wait for you/Even though it always feels like I’ll be number two to someone you can’t hold anymore.” In her music, Ariana has never shied away from her eternal love for Mac Miller, and The Weeknd, who plays the role of a new lover here, acknowledges that. Of course, he also sings that he will “love her harder” now that he is no longer “haunted by the hills,” direct references to his 2015 hit songs. Ariana’s whistles complement The Weeknd’s emotive falsetto towards the end of the song as she leans heavily into blue-eyed soul and pulls off one of her most expressive vocal performances ever.

The album doesn’t reach this level of heaviness until the closing track, but “Safety Net,” the final collaboration on the album comes close. The standout Ty Dolla $ign duet sees Ariana going full R&B as she sings of fearlessly throwing herself into a new relationship, the natural next step from “Off The Table” As with most songs on Positions, “Safety Net’s” lyrics recall a thank u, next track and this time it’s “In My Head.” On the thank u, next track, Ariana crooned of the combustion of a false construct of love that she had created in her head; on “Safety Net” she questions the reality of this new love just to be sure of its validity and make sure that it’s not all in her head. Melodically, this is one of the most gorgeous songs on Positions and the triple, sometimes quadruple, harmonies that Ty and Ari layer on each successive chorus are just breathtaking. In terms of Positions‘ more straight-forward R&B moments, Ariana really takes it there on the run from “Safety Net” to “West Side.” Like “Safety Net,” “Nasty” features production contributions from The Rascals, an R&B production duo that helmed a number of songs on Yours Truly. “Nasty” slows things down and combines the teasing sensualness of “Motive” with the explicitness of “34+35.” Teased months before the album’s release, “Nasty” wouldn’t sound out of place a Kehlani record, for example, and Ariana pulls off the sound very well. Similarly, “West Side” sees Ariana sampling Aaliyah’s classic “One In A Million” and channeling her inner Brandy. The muted production provides Ariana with ample space for her most intricate runs as she sings about the delicate power balance in her new relationship. She’s dominant on this song without being overbearing and that’s what makes it so perfect. Also, that run on “chill?” Straight Brandy. Finally, “My Hair,” sees Ariana leaning out of moody 2010s R&B to a more neo-soul approach. Although the song is literally about her man touching her hair, “My Hair” is truly about Ariana opening up the most vulnerable parts of herself to the person that she loves. The plucky guitar and bass are a welcome change of pace and sonic tie to the title track. You can’t talk about “My Hair” without mentioning that jaw-dropping final chorus which Ariana sings entirely in her whistle register. There are notes of Jill Scott, Macy Gray, and India .Arie on the song in the way that Ariana’s voice bounce off the guitar, but, of course, she makes it her own.

Positions also boasts enjoyable tracks like “Six Thirty” and “Obvious,” two songs that achieve the perfect blend of R&B and pop, but, arguably, don’t add that much to the album thematically. They aren’t necessarily filler, but they don’t push Ariana and her collaborators to new sonic spaces or really anchor the album in any way. Nevertheless, they both have irresistible hooks and Ariana, unsurprisingly, sounds great on them. There’s also the jazzy “Love Language” on which Ariana leaves her “baggage at the door” and tries to “unlearn what ain’t right” and learn her new partner’s love language. The dizzying string-laden production is probably the most sonically innovative moment of Positions and it’s a pleasure to listen to. And then, there was “POV.” Quickly going viral on TikTok, the stunning closer to Positions is already looking to be Ariana’s next blockbuster single. If there is one department Ariana lacked in, musically, it was her ballads. “POV” immediately remedies that issue. The gorgeous ballad is an unconventional love song in the way that it sees Ariana seeking to see and love herself the way that her lover sees and loves her. It’s truly a beautifully written song with lyrics like: “How you touch my soul from the outside/Permeate my ego and my pride.” It is particularly fitting that Ariana closes Positions with a song that calls back to a song that was the emotional apex of thank u, next. On “POV,” Ariana earnestly sings that her “baggage is fadin’ safely.” It’s the same baggage that she sings of on “ghostin” (“I’m a girl with a whole lot of baggage”), effectively, ahem, positioning Positions as the final installment of this chapter of her life. Sweetener saw Ariana overcoming the first wave of tragedy and making a conscious effort to lean into optimism. Thank u, next saw Ariana coming to terms with the more intense effects of sustained trauma and emotional damage and working through it in healthy and unhealthy ways. Finally, Positions shows Ariana closing one chapter and entering another that is markedly brighter and highlighted with genuine healing and maturation.

Prior to the release of Positions, there was a narrative that Ariana would be dropping a full R&B project. Leaked snippets of a Lucky Daye collaboration, Ariana’s own tease of “Nasty,” and various rumors of different collaborators led to a narrative that unfortunately misinformed a lot of listeners going into the album. Positions isn’t a fully R&B album (it wasn’t intended to be); Ariana pulls from the genre like she has for every project since Yours Truly back in 2013. Positions works because it doesn’t feel like Ariana is trying on the sound for a trend or to explore new themes. Thematically, the album is in line with what she has explored on her previous records, but she covers these topics with more nuance and maturity which she has earned through age and lived experiences. At times, the album suffers from inconsistent sequencing which muddies its narrative; this is a problem that has plagued each of Ariana’s albums in one way or another. Sonically, Ariana blends R&B with her theatre background, dance, jazz, pop, hip-hop, and more to create her own signature sound. The act of blending genres is not unique to Ariana, of course, but the sound that she landed on is. Admittedly, on some of her earlier albums, some songs sounded like they were meant for other artists no matter how hard Ariana tried to make them her own. On Positions, every track is distinctly and Ariana Grande track. A soft fluttery tone, carefully stacked harmonies, a splash of rap-singing, and, of course, a rousing string arrangement are hallmarks of every track on Positions. People will cover these songs and make songs inspired by their composition, but no one will be able to truly replicate the magic of them because they are truly her signature sound. Ariana has reached the sweet spot that every artist dreams of.

Most importantly, this is clearly the album that Ariana has been dying to make. Back in 2018, in my review of Sweetener, I wrote “Sweetener is the album Ariana always wanted to make, but it feels like she only scrapes the surface of the album she was born to craft.” With Positions, she has made ample progress in scraping the surface of the album she was born to craft. It’s only up from here.

Score: 81

Key Tracks: “Off The Table” | “Safety Net” | “POV” | “West Side” | “Love Language”

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