Ariana Grande Builds on Older Work in “positions”

Despite boring and skippable tracks, Ariana proves she is an incredibly capable musician.

Bobby Liming, Sandscript Author


The album cover for "positions" by Ariana Grande
The album cover for “positions,” released October 30th, 2020

Ariana Grande is an artist that most people seem to either love or hate, with very little middle ground. Be it due to the controversies surrounding her, the intense fandom, or the like, she has built an incredibly large, yet closely-knit fanbase, which is difficult to get into from an outsider’s perspective. However, if you can push through some of these issues, much of the music is rewarding. Her 2016 album, Dangerous Woman, for example, remains her best album to date; with constant bangers throughout its duration, it’s no wonder this really became the release that would give her as giant of a name as she has in the music industry. Despite such a high note, sweetener, which attempts to combine pop with a trap/hip-hop influence, simply ends up coming off as dime-a-dozen, and quite frankly, boring. However, thank u, next shows that she can pull this off much better than she did on the previous album. It adds major dynamics that sweetener suffered without, and although it’s not perfect, it showed improvements were being made, and I was excited to see how these dynamics were going to be at play on her latest work, positions, which follows up thank u, next

Unfortunately, my expectations were too high for what the album actually achieves. This album isn’t terrible, or even bad, as it does offer several great songs in its catalogue.  Unfortunately, these songs end up being watered down and diluted by other tracks which, like those on sweetener are bland. The most prominent examples of this are the tracks “just like magic,” “six thirty,” “nasty,” “west side,” and even the title track, “positions.” These tracks attempt to do the same exact thing we heard from sweetener, by combining generic trap percussion with extremely atmospheric synths; since these don’t blend together well at all, the result is something that feels dry and, for lack of a better term, emotionless. Even some of the tracks with features have this same exact problem. For example, “safety net,” which has a feature from Ty Dolla $ign, does absolutely nothing to benefit the album. His feature is, yet again, boring, and quite frankly, unnecessary. Additionally, The Weekend feature on “off the table” is probably the only reason why this song was saved. The track opens up with a cryptic on-and-off bass, similar to that of the REI AMI track “Runaway,” does grab your attention, but then it morphs into the same thing you’ve been hearing the entire album. When The Weekend finally gets to their point in the track, it becomes the first and only breath of fresh air on the track, with a super interesting flow and dynamic to the track. 


Despite these obvious flaws, there are some tracks that are just as good and interesting as those other tracks are boring. The opening track, “shut up,” as well as the second, “34+35,” become super interesting due to their incorporation of a string section. The first one, in fact, is only string based. The instrumentation is similar to that of something you would hear on The Twilight Zone, or, even moreso, is reminiscent of the track “turncoat,” which you would probably know as the theme for YouTube channel Unus Annus, which was recently deleted as of around a week ago. “34+35” transitions amazingly well from “shut up,” by taking a similar string influence, only adding percussion and synths to the mix; and, in a way, brings you into the mindset for the rest of the album. 


On top of these strings, some other tracks actually take on a major jazz influence, something we’ve only seen subtle hints of in her music prior to this release. Not only is it interesting to hear her on this type of instrumental, but it also suits her much better than a lot of her other styles in previous work. “My hair” and “love language” showcase this perfectly. These tracks have very organic sounding drums, along with flamboyant sounding melodies and synth groves, all of which are then built upon in an incredibly unique way by Ariana. These tracks are specific ones that I feel are worth revisiting the album to hear. 


Finally, a track worth bringing up all on its own is “motive.” This song, featuring Doja Cat, is probably the best track on the album. It’s the only one where Ariana transitions from this very modern and minimalistic vibe to one that is much more 80’s oriented. A track similar to Poppy and Diplo’s “Time Is Up,” “motive” showcases a pulsing and groove-centered synth-bass, with vocals accenting it. It then builds into a super gratifying chorus. When Doja Cat then comes in, it builds upon Ariana’s vocals, as Doja’s vocals, which contrast Ariana’s well, add a ton of variety to the track. This ends up making this song, by a landslide, the best on the album.


Overall, this album is not perfect at all, and yet, it leaves me excited yet again for what we might see from her in the future. If she goes in the same 80’s direction that “motive” did, then we might end up seeing some of her best work to date. Hopefully, this album is that stepping stone into an album more centered around that. Additionally, these jazz influenced tracks are suiting her more than any other of the pop/hip-hop combinations she has yet to have done. While it has more than its fair share of skippable songs, it’s the ones that aren’t in that list that make the album so worthwhile.