Favorite Track: "positions" Least Favorite Track: "safety net (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)"
Few pop stars in today’s mainstream have as recognizable a voice as Ariana Grande. Her high-pitched and alluring tone, her stark and sassy delivery, her fun social personality and her deeply revealing lyrics culminate into somewhat of an anomaly: a perfect pop singer on paper. She is relatable, her lyrics speaking to the beautiful yet mundane nature of relationships and sex. Her music is catchy and to the point, garnering her four Billboard Hot 100 number ones, and her catalogue pulling in 3.5 billion streams on three separate albums as of February 2020. Most importantly though, her music is fantastically well rounded, albums like Dangerous Woman and thank u, next writing the script for pop stars to come.
With thank u, next specifically, Ariana blended elements of pop, R&B, hip-hop, and soul to create a sonically diverse and lyrically compelling record. “break up with your girlfriend, i’m bored” was tongue-in-cheek in a somewhat empowering way with Ariana painting herself to be an irreverent, lovesick admirer that waives the rules. The song is fun, Ariana’s vocal delivery is catchy, and the beat is infectious to the max. The title track saw Ariana reflecting on past lovers in a somewhat dismissive but mature manner, running through a list of all her past beaus and thanking them for the personal growth they allowed her to make in their company. The sentiment is sweet, and the nod to the late Mac Miller with the line “Wish I could say thank you to Malcolm/Cause he was an angel” is enough to make me choke up a bit every time I hear it.
Overall, holding expectations for an Ariana Grande album is a futile effort. With 2018’s Sweetener, we saw a more R&B influenced sound with some occasionally bouncy tracks here and there to lighten the mood. Dangerous Woman and My Everything were just solid pop records through and through. thank u, next, while following a lot of the same tropes as Sweetener, took a bit more of an influence from the dominating trap style of the mainstream. The hit #1 song “7 rings” showed that Ariana was competent in the style too, the smoky vocals and the “I own this song” attitude made for a track that was a genre-fluid force to be reckoned with. Her newest release, Positions, seems to attempt to blend all of her past styles together with little to no avail. Not only do the multitude of musical influences not culminate too well on this record, but some of her weakest writing to date turns up on this record as well. The beats are spotty, the vocal performances are pretty understated, and the overtly sexual vibe of the record fails to have much cohesion working in its favor.
On Positions, the highlights show Ariana taking charge of the track in a similar manner to “7 rings”. The title track of the record is a plucky, assertive banger with Ariana singing about the different roles she takes on in her relationship. The beat is driving, her vocal delivery is punchy and inviting, and the chorus melody is absolutely fantastic. The track “34+35” is a sex anthem that I expected to be somewhat corny due to the title, but I was pleasantly surprised. The lyrics are a bit gauche at times, but the core of the song is a fantastic pop tune that has some great strings and trap instrumentation too. “pov” is a lovey and smooth slow burner that is all about being infatuated with how your partner loves you. Ariana comes up with some nice sentiments about wishing that she could see herself through her partner’s eyes. The beat is wonderful, filled with lots of light-on-the-ears, sweet instrumentation and Ariana’s vocal performance here is evocative and beautiful.
Unfortunately, the highlights end there. The majority of this record just feels incredibly underwritten, poorly produced and the features and vocal performances are relatively weak as well. While the tracks on the album share a lot of similar themes, the narrative of the record never manages to feel as complete as thank u, next. “off the table (with The Weeknd) attempts some of the same R&B tropes as many tracks off Sweetener, but the overly lovesick lyrics and the moody and sensual beat make it sound more like a bad rip-off of Ctrl era Sza with a boring Weeknd feature. “motive (with Doja Cat)” pulls from the thank u, next box of sounds with an uninspired trap instrumental courtesy of Murda Beatz. The vocals on this track are painfully average and somehow come off sounding like a carbon copy of Rina Sawayama’s “Comme Des Garcons (Like The Boys)”. Nearly every other track on this album is so indistinguishable and forgettable that after four listens, I still barely remember anything about them.
This album, I feel, is somewhat of a crossroads for Ariana. I think her knack for catchy pop music with a cutting-edge flair is not lost, just slightly misguided across Positions. Some of the more radio-friendly cuts like “safety net (feat. Ty Dolla $ign)” and “six thirty” have something that sets them apart from any material off her previous records: they sound like they were made to be hits. Where Ariana thrives is not in replicating a formula, but in being a creative entity capable of BEING the formula. Her wonderfully smart and inventive edge has set her apart time and time again in the music industry, and for the first time, it feels as if she is trying to follow the formulas instead of setting the standard. Positions is by no means a terrible record, I don’t believe that someone of Ariana’s caliber has a terrible record in them, but it feels like this effort is a somewhat misguided detour that doesn’t do anything but keep Ariana’s artistic progression stagnant at the worst.