Ariana Grande is switching up positions, but it feels stale

Ariana Grande's

Just Entertainment

Ariana Grande’s “Positions” released on Oct. 30, but doesn’t quite hold up as well as previous albums “Sweetener” or “thank u, next.” Photo by Just Entertainment is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

After the grieving process that was her 2019 album “thank u, next,” pop superstar Ariana Grande has returned with the much more thematically light “Positions.”

Ariana Grande has been through a lot since her days as a Nickelodeon star. Many saw her as just another child star turned pop artist, soon to fade into obscurity after a couple of radio hits. However, over the course of the past few years, Grande has not only made a name for herself in the mainstream, but has managed to garner quite a bit of critical acclaim with her past couple of records. She found her voice, and despite being on a major label for her entire career, Grande was making the albums that she wanted to make.

So what is the next step in Grande’s artistic pursuits? Well, it looks like it’s a step back.

The most drastic change is her songwriting. Whereas “thank u, next” leaned into some sensual themes,“Positions” tips the scale from sensual to sexual. Her lyrics always felt like they had a knowing wink, but were ultimately safe for radio play. Subtlety is thrown out the window in favor of songs such as “nasty,” “love language,” and “34+35.”

A lack of subtlety is not necessarily a bad thing. After the understated nature of her last album, it must feel nice to let loose on some unabashedly explicit tracks. This sudden and stark change holds potential to make for a fresh listening experience—not to mention, there is an undeniable feeling that hearing a former Nickelodeon star singing these songs is in some way taboo, which is always fun.

The new direction doesn’t hold up as well as it could have, however. The hooks are generally weak, with some exceptions being “motive” and “my hair.” Songs rarely stick in the way that some of her best singles have been able to. Tracks such as “west coast” are so forgettable it is difficult to recall what it sounds like immediately after listening.

The tracks, “just like magic” and “off the table” serve as bright spots on the album where her writing becomes more introspective, and although the two songs are about very different subject matter, they both dive into her growth as a person. These couple of songs show the potential that was lost on the rest of the album, making them bittersweet listens in the context of the album.

By the end of the album, it’s hard to not be bored. While it is always intriguing to hear a radio-friendly pop artist go against the grain, the content isn’t written well enough to maintain interest.

The production holds up a bit better than the songwriting. Opener, “shut up” has an elegant string based production that’s equal parts lofty and catchy. The aforementioned “off the table” is the darkest track on the album with Canadian alternative-R&B artist The Weeknd partnering with Grande over a lush string section and droning bass that sounds like it could be a solo Weeknd song. 

The vintage cut “my hair” has Grande literally letting her hair down for her partner, with her hair symbolizing emotional vulnerability. The whole song is draped in sultry guitar, making running hands through her hair feel much more intimate than it should. The title track, “positions,” reflects on Grande’s new love with a guitar motif reminiscent of early 2000s R&B, but still has enough modern production flairs to be considered a full on throwback.

Besides the handful of songs mentioned, the rest of the tracklist struggles to stick out from the crowd. They tend to vary from forgettable to grating, an unfavorable dichotomy to be presented with.

“Positions” isn’t quite the progression I was hoping for from Grande, but she has already proven that she is capable of much more with her past couple of albums. So whether this is an unfortunate miss from her, or a disheartening return to mediocrity is yet to be seen. This album feels like a relatively small step in her career, and isn’t going to have the lasting impact of “Sweetener” and “thank u, next.” 

If you love Grande’s output up to this point, you probably already love “Positions” and don’t even care about this review. If you are an outsider who is curious about exploring her discography, this is the one to skip.

Recommended listening setting: Anywhere, just not in front of your parents.

4/10

Thomas Stremfel can be reached at [email protected] or @tomstremfel on Twitter.