Ariana Grande probably has the most credible claim of the best vocalist currently getting any top forty radio play. Her newest album Positions comes off the incredible success of her last album Thank U Next, which was not only her best album to date but a welcome stabiliser to her public image following a very rough year, involving a sudden bereavement, a tumultuous breakup and even a fatal terrorist attack at one of her concerts. Thank U Next both regained her composure gracefully and provided her with her biggest ever hits. However, the album wasn’t without controversy with some online reviewers singling out her song “7 rings” as the worst hit song of the year, citing its claustrophobic melodies, materialistic lyrics and perceived cultural appropriation. I was caught up in this narrative myself but increasingly came to consider the criticisms overblown and by the time she followed up with her fantastic live album K Bye for Now, Ariana could do no wrong in my eyes (and incidentally, “The Git Up” by Blanco Brown was easily the worst hit song of 2019).
Grande’s streak continued into 2020 with two number one debuting duets, first with Lady Gaga, the fabulous “Rain On Me” and then with Justin Bieber, on the less successful but overly hated “Stuck With U”. She finally began gearing up for her own album in October with the release of its lead single, as with Thank U Next, the title track, “positions”, with the album following in short order a week later. Initially I considered “positions” to be fairly mild, particularly as a lead single, lacking the tabloid narrative of “thank u next” or the potency and volume of “No Tears Left to Cry”, her last two lead singles. The chirruping crickets were an odd instrumental touch and the chorus is more cool-and-catchy than an anthemic earworm. The track set the stage for a low key, intimate and fairly ignorable project, without the variety, vulnerability or confidence that defines her best work and the song’s chart performance seems to agree.
However, “positions” grew on me once heard in the context of the album. The song’s narrative, about a new relationship making Ariana want to escape her comfort zone in order to be all things to her partner, is rather seductive and the gently swaying chorus melody suits her voice very well. Like many other tracks here, my only real complaint is that it feels rather too typical an Ariana Grande song, lacking the anthemic or personal touches that would make it something to return to over any other song in her catalogue with a similar vibe. However, tender, sensuous and low key is the general ambience of Positions, and viewed without the burden of lead single status, “positions” is a superb and thoroughly enjoyable track that sells that ambience well.
Although perhaps the least formidable of Grande’s recent releases, tuneful production, superb vocals and undeniable star power have carried lesser albums and Positions comes unblemished by any real missteps, and complete with its share of highlights. “shut up” is an elegant and graceful intro track, with a beautiful wholly string-based instrumental, with pizzicato for percussion and enveloping clouds of strings. “34+35” is a sultry and playfully explicit sex jam, with a good sense of humour and coy, cheeky attitude.
Referencing her trademark ponytail, “my hair” is a soulful and tastefully sensuous track with a stunning vocal performance where Grande really earns her Mariah Carey or Beyonce comparisons. The song’s groovy Scott Storch beat, incorporating saxophone and steel drum embellishments, gives the track a nostalgic mid-2000s RnB swing, and it stands among Grande’s best tracks. “love language” is one of the few tracks that picks up the tempo with an almost tropical groove, sexy strings and a delicate and infectious chorus. As previously stated, “positions” has been sounding a lot better to me on recent listens, and the album ends on a high note with “pov”, the album’s most emotionally potent track, with Grande lamenting her inability to see herself in as angelic a light as her significant other does.
Positions sees a return of the features that Thank U Next so boldly and triumphantly abjured, and none of them constitute fireworks. The guests don’t fumble their performances, they just struggle to hold their own against Ariana, even The Weeknd. Doja Cat duets fairly comfortably with Ariana on the smooth house inflected beat of “motive”. Ty Dollar $ign’s harmonies add little to the track “safety net”, and seems to be struggling to keep up with Ariana and her team up with The Weeknd on “off the table” doesn’t add very much to the song and feels like a missed opportunity. Tesfaye seems out of his element here playing the devoted and repentant lover and the song lacks the chemistry the two had on “Love Me Harder”. The track has some of the best writing on the record, but the slow-moving instrumental keeps it grounded and holds it back from really soaring.
The only real flaw with Positions is the lack of the narrative that buoyed Thank U Next, Grande’s personal and unguarded presentation on that album was what elevated it above her contemporaries in the mainstream pop sphere and that’s rather absent here. So too is the eccentric musical experimentation of Sweetener, which came as a result of the production of Pharrell Williams. Although Williams’s production led to as many misses as hits, it gave each song a defined and distinctive personality. That’s not to dismiss Positions at all though. It’s an assured and consistent tracklist of seductive and soothing RnB tunes, and Grande is as magnetic a soprano as ever.