Ariana Grande is the master of tactical promotions for album releases, tweet-and-deletes, powerhouse vocals and pop perfection. If her second album, “My Everything” from 2014, didn’t prove the last, then her past two albums, 2018’s “Sweetener” and 2019’s “thank u, next,” surely solidified it. They emphasized the role that her social media posts — tweets of unknown lyrics, Instagram videos of unreleased audio — played in marketing her album. But has “Positions,” her surprise drop of 2020, added another well-tailored pop album to Grande’s discography? Almost.
“Sweetener” and “thank u, next” ventured into R&B and trap respectively, offering different worlds to her discography both in tone and story. Born from a tumultuous, traumatic and viscerally public part of her career and personal life, “thank u, next” was enormous and intimate, curated with careful attention to its lyrics and vibrant sound. However, “Positions” presents little else than what “Yours Truly,” her debut, gave in 2013. It is passive pop with some flourishing outliers. The songs sound unfortunately familiar, the very quality it seemed “Sweetener” and “thank u, next” were trying to subvert.
To the tune of distorted, orchestral background music, the album sounds like an electronic dream, with every track linked by soaring violins and snapped together with striking trap beats. The opener, “shut up,” makes effective use of the strings section, an energetic juxtaposition to Grande’s airy vocals.
Yet “shut up,” like the tracks “off the table (with The Weeknd),” “just like magic” and “six thirty” — none of which is worth writing about — feels deeply uninspired, from its banal lyrics to mediocre execution to a dull spotlight on Grande’s vocals. The pop-heavy songs “breathin” from “Sweetener” or “bloodline” from “thank u, next” were successful because they placed an emphasis on Grande’s vocals. When the lyrics sometimes failed, her voice was there to fill in the gaps. Grande has one of the best vocals among current pop artists, and how this album fails to place her talent at the forefront is baffling.
The only exception to a first half of uncharacteristically dull tracks is “34+35.” The song begins with a mocking chuckle before it becomes one of many ludicrously enjoyable and playfully explicit songs on “Positions.” The song displays Grande’s wit through clever and comical lyrics like “baby, you might need a seatbelt when I ride it / … even though I’m wifey / you can hit it like a side chick” or “I’ve been drinking coffee / and I’ve been eating healthy / you know I keep it squeaky.” Combined with the album’s trademark, swelling violins, the song is silly, strong and frisky all at once.
Even as fun as “34+35” is, “Positions” is considerably stronger from “safety net (feat. Ty Dolla $ign),” the album’s seventh song, and onward, though it’s difficult to forget the damage of the earlier songs. This collaboration is seamless, combining a haunting electronic beat with Grande’s vocals at the forefront. It would fit neatly in with the tracks on “thank u, next” because of its honest lyrics and tenacious back track.
The same can be said about “my hair,” “love language,” “obvious” and “pov,” all of which Grande executes beautifully. “obvious” and “pov” in particular are genuine and gorgeous, a candid picture of her insecurities and a lover that accepts her for her flaws. The two songs complete the album’s dreamy sound.
But while any of the songs in the second half of “Positions” may improve the standard of the album, they hardly add something noteworthy or iconic to Grande’s already exceptional discography. There’s nothing on “Positions” that’s as dynamic as her previous tracks “get well soon” or “Dangerous Woman,” as soul-bearing as “ghostin” or “needy,” as uncompromising as “God is a woman” or as exuberant as “make up.”
Frustratingly, painstakingly, the album’s most devastating issue is that none of its songs quite lives up to the glory or caliber of any of the tracks in her prior albums. While “Positions” may fathom up a vigorous response, as Grande’s albums usually do, it is too simple and too ineffective to carve out as lasting an impact.