“Positions:” too Underwritten to be so Sexy

Ariana Grande makes my job easy. Everyone reading this probably knows who she is. I don’t have to make a well written backstory or poetic introduction to let you, the reader, know that she is probably the biggest star on the planet. It also goes without saying that she is one of today’s best vocalists, but what might be lost on many of you is the fact that Grande’s last three albums, “Dangerous Woman,” “Sweetener” and “thank u, next,” are three of the most tasteful mainstream pop albums of the past decade.

While the first of the three is a mixed batch of mostly good pop songs, “Sweetener” found Grande settling in on her style of sensual R&B, with quirky production from Pharrell, while throwing some radio pop anthems in the mix. Some of the biggest and best pop singles of 2018 were there, like “no tears left to cry, “God is a woman” and “breathin,” while deep cuts like “R.E.M,” “everytime” and “blazed” were immediate fan favorites.

While it garnered a surprising amount of critical hype as well, “thank u, next” came less than six months later. Here, Grande made a complete 180 from the blissful sound of “Sweetener” and came through with a collection of catchy songs that explored the troubling state Grande’s mental health was in, resulting in a more consistent, cohesive, conceptual and sad album than anything she’s done before. Well worth its hype, it confirmed Grande’s status as one of the better pop stars in the mainstream.

The roll out for “Positions” was a lot more quiet than her previous projects, complete with two tweets and one single before the album. Given her stature, she can afford to do this and still catch the world by storm, and that it did, with the title track released a week before the record. Even taking songs like “Into You” and “Dangerous Woman” into account, it’s one of the sexiest songs Grande has sung. With the staccato strings in the introduction to the lavish orchestral arrangements that build throughout, the trap production is a perfect bed for the stack of vocal harmonies Grande delivers. It’s a piece of purely sensual ear candy, and the hook, where she continuously sings about “switching [her] positions,” is almost stunningly hot. Lyrically, it’s one of the horniest songs she’s released, literally using a sexual innuendo to explicitly talk about sex, but damn is it saucy.

It’s also a perfect teaser as it gives audiences exactly what they’re in for on this project as, ironically, Grande barely switches positions at all on this project. Those string arrangements and walls of harmony are consistent threads throughout the project, but also the trap beats and sexual lyricism, making for a listen that’s almost too cohesive for its own good. As a result, the times where it breaks away from this formula are often the most rewarding.

That being said, it’s not without its highlights. The groovy, sensual “motives” with Doja Cat is backed by a house groove reminiscent of lofi outsider house by artists like Four Tet and Ross From Friends. Continuing on that energy, “my hair” has one of the most passionate performances from Grande on the album and an instrumental that sounds straight off of a “lofi hip hop beats to study to” compilation, complete with a surprisingly sweet inclusion of horns. “love language” is a mellow moment that calls back to the “Emotions”-era Mariah Carey in a way Grande has often done throughout her career, this being another good example. The most stand-out classic Grande style song is “obvious,” which may follow a formula that has been well defined by this point on the album, but this time it comes off just a little more catchy. The only true ballad is the closer, “pov,” which is an interesting take on self-love that doubles as one of the sharper tunes on the album.

However, while she certainly presents a refined sound on these tracks and others, this more sophisticated take on her style seems to be at a compromise of the songwriting that made her last couple of records so memorable. As a result, most of the album sits somewhere on the spectrum between meh and utterly forgettable (“nasty”). It’s so one-note even an awkward duet with the Weeknd on “off the table” or a washed out feature from Ty Dolla $ign on “safety net” couldn’t wake it up. Additionally, for as sexy as it is on its best moments, the topic of sex isn’t explored to many interesting depths, which makes it so lyrically un-indulgent that a cheaply clever attempt at singing about 69 on “34+35” is one of the more refreshing moments on the project.

If this tells you anything, it’s that you can surround one of the most talented singers in the world with some of the best producers and co-songwriters in the industry, but the results will only be as great as the songwriting. If you’re looking to get into that mood, “Positions” does just that, but it doesn’t do much else.