Ariana Grande’s ‘Positions’ is missing something—but what?

The sixth studio album from Grande signals a massive shift for the artist, from high-octane pop anthems to sultry, sensual R&B ballads. But this project is missing her signature touch.

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Ariana Grande challenges traditional gender roles in “positions” (YouTube/ArianaGrandeVevo)

Griffin Jones

Editor’s Note: This article contains references to offensive language.

After a cryptic tweet from music titan Ariana Grande on October 14th announced that she would be dropping an album before the month concluded, fans were sent into a frenzy. However, following the album’s release, the hype has given way to somewhat neutral critical reception. 

On paper, Ariana Grande’s latest LP effort, “Positions,” has all the ingredients to be hugely successful: she teamed up with familiar vocal and production collaborators Victoria Monet and Tommy Brown, and the album features other popular artists, such as The Weeknd and Doja Cat. But despite this, there is something important missing; namely, the spark of inspiration that illuminated her previous works.

Grande dropped her last two albums “Sweetener” and “thank u, next” only six months apart. Those albums cemented her status as an icon in the industry and the world, with “thank u, next” in particular becoming a massive success on the charts, as well as a cultural phenomenon at large. Grande’s music has always been polished and appeals to a wide audience, and over the past few years, she has skyrocketed to unfathomable levels of success. Given this precipitous rise in both popularity and artistic growth, an eventual falter was inevitable.

The overall sound of “Positions” is such a departure from Grande’s previous works that longtime fans were bound to be a bit unsettled, but while most have taken this change in stride, being a dedicated groupie cannot entirely make up for the “special something” the album lacks.

The biggest pitfall of this album seems to be that it lacks the flagship bolt of energy and inspiration that Grande is known for. Even on previous song missteps such as “fake smile” or “blazed,” there remained a central sense of motivation and inspiration that the tracks on “Positions” unfortunately lack. The short duration of many of the songs contributes to this, as they end before listeners can truly feel immersed in them.

Ariana Grande’s “Positions” album debut photoshoot (Dave Meyers)

Even when delving into deeply emotional moments such as the passing of Mac Miller, it seems that Grande is unable to channel the same raw emotion that tracks like “ghostin” or “in my head” were able to navigate with such deftness. As she sings “Will I ever love the same way again?/Will I ever love somebody like the way I did you?” in “off the table,” which seems to be inspired by the same events as much of “thank u, next,” the words feel stilted and empty, which limits the degree to which listeners can envelop themselves in her emotions.

Several of the tracks fade into the background by virtue of their banal lyrics, shorter-than-average duration and other factors that render them somewhat irrelevant. “West side,” “six thirty” and “obvious” in particular are especially regretful (which is saying something for an album where every track struggles to remain present in the minds of listeners). In the context of the album as a whole, these songs made sense, but alone, they are not substantial enough to be memorable.

It is worth noting that Grande’s vocals on this project are, as usual, massively impressive. Her signature sound permeates each and every track, with her iconic whistle tones in particular punctuating the outro of “my hair” in a showcase of talent that fans just can’t get sick of. Similarly, the passion with which she croons the lyrics to “off the table,” the album’s collaboration with The Weeknd, is comforting and familiar. If there is one thing that we can count on, it’s Grande’s vocal prowess.

Despite the album being something of a misstep overall, there are standout moments throughout (aside from the vocals). The sexually-charged “34+35” sees Grande cleverly employ the use of simple mathematics to describe her encounters with boyfriend Dalton Gomez, an L.A. realtor who has remained mostly in the shadows in terms of public exposure. While Grande has never shied away from explicit lyrics, the declaration of “Can you stay up all night?/**** me ’til the daylight” is particularly raunchy and extends beyond what listeners have previously heard from the artist in terms of risque lyricism. The sensual themes of the album are also reflected in “nasty,” when Grande slyly admits “I just wanna make time for ya/Swear it’s just right for ya/Like this ***** designed for ya,” before she and her lover, “Get all the homies to bounce.”

The title track is another successful product of the album. Released a week earlier, “positions” details Grande’s relationship with Gomez. The track is the most reminiscent of her previous pop endeavors and its music video, which sees Grande taking control of the White House as Commander-in-Chief, enhances the song and adds a clever double meaning to the lyrics “switching the positions for you.” While America has not had a female president (yet), Grande appears to already be living in a world where this is a reality. 

Ariana Grande takes her shot at the presidency in “positions” music video (YouTube, ArianaGrandeVevo)

Other notable tracks include “safety net,” which features Ty Dolla $ign and sees Grande float effortlessly over a supple and catchy beat as she wonders “Is it real this time or is it in my head?” Elsewhere, “just like magic” and “shut up,” the album opener, both embody her propensity for boasting, but in a more nuanced way than the brusque display of opulence heard in the popular track “7 rings” from “thank u, next.” 

“Shut up” highlights Grande’s coy suggestion that her critics “keep opinions muted for the hell of it/’Causе I like my ****,” a succinct statement of self-confidence that is echoed throughout other parts of the album. In “just like magic,” she runs fans through a typical day in her life: “Twelve o’clock, I got a team meeting, then a meditation at like 1:30/Then I ride to the studio listening to some **** I wrote.” Through lyrics like this, Grande’s assertions of success in “Positions” feel more organic and less forced; she no longer has anything to prove, and it shows.

The album closes with “pov,” a beautifully-crafted but somewhat shallow anthem about Grande’s desire to see herself from her lover’s point of view, and while it is a perfect way to conclude the project, it left me with the same feeling of unfulfillment that permeates the album.

At the end of the day, though, Grande herself seems satisfied with what she has created. Perhaps it is the sense of self-satisfaction she sings about in the opener that causes the album to leave something to be desired. However, Grande has certainly made enough of a name for herself that maybe, an album that she is happy with should be celebrated in its own right.

Rating: ★★★☆☆