With her third annual release, Ariana Grande followed a career peak with an album of diminished returns in her sixth studio album “positions.”
After 2018’s “Sweetener” served as a tour-de-force in defining Grande as a tentpole of modern pop, she followed that with a career explosion in 2019’s “thank u, next.” A year and a half later, Grande is back with the mellow, often uninspired “positions,” an album devoid of the magic that made Grande a star.
The 14-track, 41-minute album is a breezy listen. Most songs blend together due to the lo-fi-esque, R&B-inspired production and humdrum vocal delivery. For the first time in her career, Grande sounds like she’s on autopilot. Lacking the character and energy of her past releases, “positions” is a hollow addition to the starlet’s discography.
Features by Doja Cat, The Weeknd and Ty Dolla Sign fill the album, but none add much intrigue. “motive” featuring Doja Cat is a fun enough song, if nothing special. However, Doja Cat’s vocals sound scratchy and unpleasant in her verse. Perhaps it was a bad vocal take but a star of Grande’s caliber has no excuse to drop a track in such condition. Let Doja Cat have a cough drop and recover instead of rushing a release.
The wasted potential of “motive” represents a rampant issue with the album. Although Grande’s “thank u, next” is the album that was slapped together in two weeks, “positions” sounds much more rushed and perfunctory.
While the album never veers into dreadful territory, it rarely rises above average. “positions” is purely apathetic, which is worse than if the album took a risk that didn’t pay off. Grande played it so safe to the point of pointlessness. Had someone auto-generated an Ariana Grande album using her past works, they’d come up with something like “positions.” There are no surprises, no evolutions — no reasons for the album to exist.
Elevator music tracks flutter the album. The best setting to listen to “positions” may very well be when listeners just want noise in the background — or even for a nap. That’s not to say the music is bad enough to put listeners to sleep. Rather, the monotonous tone and sleepy production simply lend themselves to being prime nap music.
If Grande’s intent was to release an album that would have the pop culture impact of her predecessors, and not to rival white noise apps, well, she utterly failed. Perhaps “Sweetener” was lightning in a bottle, as was the less stellar but still triumphant “thank u, next,” which simply can’t be replicated.
The elevator music aesthetic clouds the whole album. “just like magic” has a promising beginning with a beat that sounds like a Nintendo game soundtrack, but falls right apart into the mundane.
The short songs and surface-level lyrics are disappointing. Even on “Sweetener,” her lyrics weren’t anywhere near poignant (“Unfollow fear and just say ‘you are blocked’” from “get well soon” comes to mind), but they bustled with personality. Grande’s prior two albums let listeners into her psyche. “positions” sounds like a “Lo-Fi Study” playlist with tracks that could have been recorded by just anyone.
The cozy nature of the album truly could have been amazing. Grande succeeded with the comfy-cutesy sound in 2015 with her EP “Christmas & Chill.” Hopefully “positions” is simply a blip in her career and not a sign that Grande has lost her flare.
The album has its bright spots, though. “love language” is pure swanky fun. The lyrics here are some of the album’s best for the campy nature that reminds of past Grande tracks. “Baby, pardon my French / But could you speak in tongues?” is one of the play-on-words employed that make the track worthwhile.
Closing track “pov” has a beautiful melody. The track fails to build to excellence, but the choir background and Grande’s evocative vocals help “pov” feel soulful. The lyrical themes of “pov” go deeper, as Grande sings about wanting to see herself through the eyes of her significant other.
“I’m getting used to receiving / Still getting good at not leaving / I’ma love you even though I know I’m scared,” Grande sings with a relatable vulnerability.
Jazzy “my hair” is a highlight with its groovy production and Grande’s lounge singer vocals. With the infamous nature of Grande’s hairstyles, this track feels inevitable. The repeated hook of “so run your hands through my hair” is a heavenly delivered line. Grande’s vocals are wildly underused on so much of the album that it’s refreshing to hear them in their glory here.
Although Grande and The Weeknd made pop greatness with their 2014 collab “Love Me Harder” off of Grande’s second album, “My Everything,” “off the table” is surprisingly a dud. The production feels heavy and lifeless, drowning out Grande’s vocals. Despite employing pop’s biggest stars, “off the table” is just forgettable. It’s not a bad song but it’s a whole lot of nothing.
That issue extends to the whole album, really. “off the table” is the symptom, not the disease, of the extreme apathy felt throughout “positions.” Potential rumbles throughout the album, but most of the tracks simply don’t go beyond mediocrity.
“positions” is available to stream on all major streaming services.