The “quarantine album” seems like a model Ariana Grande was destined to thrive under. While spontaneity seemed like an odd trait to attach to, say, a Taylor Swift project, Grande’s work hasn’t been calculated for years. Last year’s Thank U, Next — which garnered her first Album of the Year Grammy nomination and some career-best critical acclaim — was essentially a quarantine album before the word “quarantine” made us think of anything besides hazmat suits.
So what happened with Positions? Announced and released within two weeks, Grande’s entry to the already exciting musical landscape of 2020 further extends her musical plateau. Laced with innuendo, boldness and pure, unbridled sexuality, the at-times muddled body of work fails to reach its fullest potential at any point over its 14 tracks. For an album so sexually liberated, never has Grande’s music left so much to be desired.
There are high points, but they’re almost always followed up with a track that could have easily been left in the studio. “off the table,” the gorgeous ballad with The Weeknd, sees Ariana properly utilizing her once-in-a-generation voice for the first time in years (arguably since 2016’s Dangerous Woman). While The Weeknd doesn’t bring much to the table, Grande’s belt in the song’s bridge is chill-inducing, a welcome reminder that behind the Justin Bieber-reject beats and confusing genre choices that plagued both Thank U, Next and Positions, she’s still got it.
This is followed up by “six thirty,” something of a sonic-sister to the worst song on Thank U Next: “make up.” The lyrics aren’t stupid in a fun way — like on the playful “34+35” — they’re just plain stupid. “Are you down? / What’s up,” isn’t just bad, it’s downright disrespectful.
“safety net” is another standout, no thanks to another forgettable feature (Ty Dolla $ign, this time). Toying with a more modern-R&B sound, the track isn’t nearly masterful, but “the beat is hot!!!”, if you would. “west side” offers a killer hook, so it’s no shock that it’s the shortest of the bunch by a lot, at just two minutes long.
If Positions offered anything new, it’s an overwhelming frustration that Ariana continues to remain loyal to her trusty team of collaborators — most frequently Tommy Brown (TBHits), who is credited as the primary producer on all 14 tracks. It’s clear that the duo have become comfortable with each other, but this is glaringly reflected in the music they create; nearly every Positions track would fit neatly into Thank U, Next.
There are glimpses of what Ariana is capable of scattered throughout Positions — the aforementioned “off the table,” the stunning outro of “my hair” — but these simply leave more to be desired rather than satisfy the need. Grande desperately needs to find a collaborator who knows how to fully realize these strengths, rather than utilize them sporadically.
It’s crazy to think that nearly a decade into her career, Ariana is still lacking that career-defining ballad — her “I Will Always Love You,” her “Hero,” her “Hello” — and while Positions is at its best fun (and at its worst unfortunately regressive), it does nothing to help that cause.