An in-depth analysis and review of positions, Ariana Grande’s sixth studio album
Ariana Grande delivered a stunning announcement in early October: her sixth studio album was finished. Though there were signs Grande had concluded recordings, such as tweeting about delivering her final mixes, it was still a shock to fans as she had only wrapped up her last album’s era in mid-2019. That album — thank u, next — had only come about six months after her fourth studio album and received widespread critical acclaim and massive commercial success, going on to be nominated for two Grammys and having one of its singles “7 Rings” be nominated for two Grammys as well. It’s safe to say that the back-to-back releases of Sweetener and thank u, next solidified Grande as one of pop’s biggest household names and as a streaming force like few others. Quickly following her announcement, Grande announced the album would be titled positions and that the lead single would be similarly titled — with only a week separating the lead single from the album release. Though it’s odd to see a superstar coming off their landmark eras with such a sudden comeback, it’s easy to see why Grande would choose such a release strategy — she has repeatedly expressed her desire to release music regularly, the same way male rappers do, and after arguably entering the imperial era of her career, it makes perfect sense for her to capitalize on it by expanding upon her artistry and producing more material.
The album begins with a string-heavy introduction in “shut up”, which sees Grande largely speaking to the media, brushing aside criticisms of her relationships and wondering why her detractors are obsessed with her life instead of focusing on their own. The production is traditionally Grande, adding little percussion to the strings in order to allow Grande’s vocals to fully inhabit the spotlight. “34+35” is the album’s first outright banger and it’s a bold and sexually frank expression of Grande’s attraction to a love interest, utilizing thinly veiled euphemisms to mutual oral sex and boasting her prowess in the bedroom. From the outset, it’s a more mature outing for Grande, who seizes the freedom to express herself sexually more than ever before, and the trap-lite production makes it an immediately memorable and catchy standout. She enlists Doja Cat to join her for “motive”, which sees Grande and her love interest cautiously building a relationship with each other, sussing each other out, and attempting to figure out what they want from each other. This is one of the album’s clubbier moments, as Grande glides over a house-influenced beat with trace elements of lounge music. It’s not surprising given Doja Cat’s track record that Grande thought of her as a suitable feature for the track, and Doja turns in a capable verse that works in tandem with the song’s themes but never overpowers the beat. She gives listeners a rundown of her usual routine on “just like magic”, as she details her intentions of keeping a healthy headspace, though not without subtle hints towards her past troubles. The track functions as a self hype-up anthem for Grande, as she focuses on persevering through hard times and manifesting good things for herself, painting the image of her snapping her fingers, much like a genie would to grant a wish. The trappy-pop production puts this song more in line with the heavy hitters from recent previous albums such as “everytime” or “bad idea”, but a sparkly riff and Grande’s earnestness makes the song a charming and uplifting listen.
With “off the table”, Grande casts herself and the Weeknd in a devastating duet where she ponders her struggles with love and if romance is still viable for her, grieving a lost lover and subsequently struggling to connect with a potential new lover. The Weeknd plays her new lover, himself scarred by his past relationship but promising to wait for Grande, despite knowing she is still mourning and has lingering feelings for her ex. It’s a slow-burning and melancholic torch song that plays off the precarious beginnings of the potential and not-quite-stable relationship building within the song. The Weeknd and Grande play off each other’s intense and tormented vocal performances, finding a more impactful synergy than their previous duet “Love Me Harder”, and throwing in references to their past songs, both together and apart — including allusions to tabloid rumors of a past fling between Grande and the Weeknd. “six thirty” finds Grande pressing her love interest to declare their affection for her, subtly hinting at her concerns that the relationship between them won’t last and that they might drive each other away. The track reveals more about Grande’s past insecurities she carries from previous relationships, expounding on the themes of self-doubt and uneasiness forming at this point in the album. Snaps accompany the smooth electronic R&B production for a smooth and easy track that feels like Grande’s thoughts have been put directly to paper. She directly addresses her fears over the speed with which she and her partner are falling for each other on “safety net”, where she has Ty Dolla Sign play the part of her love interest, cajoling her to let her guard down and open herself up to the relationship. The sense of danger Grande feels about allowing herself to give in to the relationship is reflected in the moodier soundscape of the production, and ominous background vocals help build the chilly atmosphere and the frantic percussion also riffs on the tension and anxiety Grande’s lyrics reflect. She pivots to the sultry and seductive neo-soul jam with “my hair”, which plays on her signature ponytail and the importance of hair to her persona. Grande invites her partner to run their hands through her hair, and one could read this as Grande’s willingness to allow her partner to get closer in a more vulnerable way than she usually allows for others. Aside from weaving in some jazzier elements into her sound, the song also allows Grande to flex stunning vocal strength, including an outro where she manages to enunciate in her whistle register. She carries this whistle into “Nasty”, which sees her capturing a moment of bliss as she communicates her eagerness to sexually express her affection for her partner. She sings with an audible sweetness in her voice, and her whistles are embedded into the meandering and wistful melody. Grande usually courts comparisons to her influence Mariah Carey but it is very much earned here, as everything from melody to vocal performance is reminiscent of the pop/R&B behemoth but never to the point of imitation.
Grande does an undeniable Aaliyah impression on “west side”, which sounds like a page ripped out of the Timbaland textbook. She sounds more confident in the relationship’s longevity on this cut, promising to be her partner’s favorite and even hinting towards potential matrimony. Grande is encouraging to her partner, both in lyricism and with her warm tempting tone, reflecting a shift in tone from the earlier uncertainty she felt towards the prospect of a new romance. “love language” introduces elements of disco as Grande acknowledges that her love interest knows the perfect way to show her affection and make her feel their love. The switch-up in sound allows Grande to showcase her vocals in a different setting without interrupting the cohesion of the album, and she alludes towards oral sex and other languages to drive home the idea that Grande’s partner has found the perfect way to communicate with her. The outro transitions to a trappy coda where she confirms her desire to make a home with her partner, having found peace with them, and serves as an unmissable wink to said partner, real estate agent Dalton Gomez. Released only a week earlier, the title track “positions” is a breezy and polished pop/r&b fusion that features the plucked strings Grande is fond of as well as stabs of violin. Though the song doesn’t feel too loaded, Grande discusses traditional feminine roles in relationships and takes agency over them, acknowledging her role as a successful independent woman but choosing to perform traditional femininity out of love for her partner. By “obvious”, Grande is secure in her decision to fully commit to the relationship, telling her love interest that she doesn’t need a material response to her feelings. Though she has been talking to her new partner for most of the album, this is Grande overtly assuring them that she feels the same way they do, shifting the focus from her own insecurities and examinations of her readiness for love to declaring her reciprocation of his feelings. Her theatrical background is prominent for this track, coming off as a variation of a Broadway musical number with elements of R&B. Closing ballad “pov” may be one of Grande’s finest moments, as she marvels at her partner’s ability to love and accept all the different parts of her, whether they are good or bad. She confesses her wish to see herself the way her partner sees her, relishing the sensation of being fully perceived by her partner and acknowledging that while she is still fighting her own anxieties and insecurities, she feels sure about the relationship they share. The melody and the harmonies Grande employs here sound directly taken from the sweeping ’90s ballads, though synths assist in giving the song a modern edge and sounds of rain aid in fleshing out the song’s atmosphere. Grande makes the most of her vocal performance as she carefully and passionately sings every note, and the lyricism here is sharp, weaving in the themes of the song intricately with acute illustrations of the depth of the relationship between Grande and her partner.
Despite coming together just a bit over a year after her instant classic thank u, next, Grande continues to explore the blend of trap, pop, and r&b she championed on that record on positions. She mainly pulls inspiration from ’90s r&b more than ever before and lo-fi sounds, creating a laid-back but no less captivating sound for her latest album. This album functions as a commentary on her state of mind, much in the same way its two immediate predecessors did, and is a well-thought-out and complete body of work. The end of thank u, next found Ariana reeling from the death of one of her exes and the broken engagement with another, and though she was ready to move on, its final track hinted towards Grande not being fully healed. On this album, we return to a Grande who finds herself falling into a new romance but carrying the reservations from her failed relationships. The album charts Grande’s journey towards finding stability within her new relationship and learning to readjust to the idea that a healthy loving relationship is attainable for her. Grande’s vocal performance is better than ever before, as she flexes a jaw-droppingly stronger usage of her whistle register and takes vocal cues from inspirations such as Mariah Carey and Brandy. Her harmony work is on point, as she stacks her vocals to create stunning walls of sound and exhibits her range in full force in a tasteful way that doesn’t distract from the music. Altogether, this album is an even more mature record for her than previous efforts, continuing to display her growth and seeing her further expand her artistry by exploring different aspects of R&B and pop. It also feels like a culmination of the groundwork Grande has been laying out for the past couple of albums as well and is probably her most cohesive and consistent record to date. It’s hard to decipher where Grande will go next as in many ways, this album feels like she is in her most complete and final form. However, positions is more than enough proof that wherever she goes, Grande will remain one of this generation’s brightest and spectacular superstars.