Positions is the first real miss of Ariana Grande’s career

Ariana Grande has been one of our hardest-working pop stars for years now. That’s not a controversial statement — she’s often made sure listeners know it. Grande’s last three records — 2016’s Dangerous Woman, 2018’s Sweetener, and 2019’s thank u, next — each opened with a spare introduction designed to showcase the musician’s once-in-a-generation voice. These intro songs allowed Grande to belt and trill, to show off her enviable vocal range without the risk of the song buckling under the weight of her acrobatics. Songs like “Moonlight” and “imagine” were flexes, proof of Grande’s continued technical might.

They were also subtle reminders that, while other pop stars may try to chase trends or experiment with format, Grande has always been a traditionalist, a musician who still reveres the album as an artistic medium. Since 2016’s Dangerous Woman, each of Grande’s records have hewed to some kind of overarching aesthetic or emotional theme: “Moonlight” signaled that Dangerous Woman would be a pulpy, romantic confection, its vintage Broadway styling setting the tone for the record to come; “raindrops (an angel cried),” from Sweetener, was cathartic and spiritual and truly minimal, dovetailing with that album’s buoyant exploration of life after trauma. The opener to thank u, next, “imagine,” is exquisitely, excruciatingly personal, a hint at the emotional excavation and grief that colored that record. This kind of conceit is nothing new. But this element of Grande’s records helped paint an image of her as one of pop’s more industrious figures, someone rarely content to let a handful of hired-gun songwriters do her work for her or let a record be a mere vehicle for blockbuster singles — someone who, even at her worst, was still willing to work very, very hard.

It doesn’t feel coincidental that Positions, Grande’s sixth record, doesn’t have a tone-setting introduction in the style of her last three albums. The first genuine miss of her career, Grande’s follow-up to the colossal one-two punch of Sweetener and thank u, next is unfocussed and often tedious, finding the musician forgoing the most compelling aspects of her music in favour of trend-chasing production and occasionally lazy lyricism.

It’s hard to pinpoint what exactly went wrong with Positions. On paper, it’s as much of a home run as Grande’s previous records: the production team is largely the same, with the same mix of rap producers and longtime Grande collaborators; the songwriting team is similar to thank u, next. What seems to be gone is any sense of distinction, any punch; these songs dissolve into a swamp of icy drum hits and aimless melisma.

The clearest difference between Positions and past Grande albums appears to be in style. Grande has always been about as influenced by R&B as the next pop star; of course she owes a lot to icons of the form, namely Mariah Carey, but her music has never felt been conversation with R&B as much as it’s been in conversation with, say, rap music. Here, though, Grande switches out her classical pop delivery for a wordy, conversational style favoured by modern luminaries SZA and Kehlani.

From the Weeknd collaboration “off the table” (which recalls SZA’s “The Weekend” more than a little) onward, Positions sees Grande pretty much abandoning the hallmarks of her songwriting circa-Sweetener and thank u, next, instead going for something more understated and, as such, underwhelming. The style Grande attempts here requires some kind of looseness, a naturally felt fluidity, a skill that she, for better or for worse, has never possessed. (On the slinky “my hair,” a plea for a lover to put his hands in her hair, she can’t help but mention the fact that most people aren’t allowed to touch her famed ponytail. Even when trying to cosplay as carefree, Grande can’t keep up the facade.)

The reasoning behind Grande’s pivot to R&B seems sound in the context of the album. Positions is largely about sex, and there is no better vehicle through which to sing about sex than an R&B song. The problem here is that Grande’s writing has never been weaker. “34+35,” a hammy ode to 69-ing, makes no attempts at even the most vaguely clever innuendo; “I don’t wanna keep you up / assuming can you keep it up / ’cos then I’d like to keep you up, so maybe I’mma keep you up,” goes the lyric that most closely resembles smart wordplay. Grande is “all up in [her] feels” but wanting to “keep it real” on “nasty,” on the chorus of which she sings, “don’t wanna wait on it, tonight I wanna get nasty,” a line so generic that it almost seems like a placeholder.

Lyrics are low-effort all around here: Ty Dolla $ign delivers a profoundly forgettable verse on “safety net,” while The Weeknd confounds on his guest verse, helping the album reach its lyrical nadir with the line “Yeah, I was toxic, but I was toxic for someone else.” In the past when Grande’s lyrics have been clowned, it’s often been due to her collaborators — “Now that I’ve become who I really are,” on My Everything’s “Break Free” was a classic Max Martin-ism, while the central metaphor of “bloodline” was widely misunderstood, but actually did make sense — but there are so many gaffes here, it’s hard to account for all of them.

The other pillar of Grande’s artistry, her vocals, also falters here. She still sounds great, of course, but working almost entirely in conversational, low-key R&B seems to preclude her from replicating any of the truly show-stopping vocal work from past albums. Grande barely belts on Positions. Instead, these songs are impeded by a glut of meaningless tricks: there is an abundance of melisma on these tracks, as well as surprisingly frequent usage of Grande’s whistle tone. While hearing the whistle tone was thrilling and fun on, say, thank u, next’s “imagine,” it is rarely deployed thoughtfully here, instead popping up as a flimsy, disposable signifier of talent.

Positions is not entirely without charm. On the glittering “just like magic,” Grande sings about “writing love letters to heaven,” and the track drops out for the briefest moment; it is sweet and touching, the closest thing to transcendence on the album, even though you have to fight past a handful of Instagram caption lyrics (“Good karma my aesthetic!”) to get there. I’m not personally a believer in the idea that good art stems from trauma — that idea essentially amounts to pop critic ambulance chasing, and also ignores the fact that Grande has made many great records, not just two — but this moment in “just like heaven” highlights the fact that Grande’s music is at its best when she accentuates her idiosyncrasies, rather than when she tries to emulate others. The Doja Cat collaboration “motive,” produced by Murda Beatz, is the album’s most dynamic moment, boasting its most significant tempo change, and its strongest hook outside lead single “positions.” Still, Grande jumping on a house-inflected beat feels cheap, especially considering the fact that this year has seen everyone from Lady Gaga to Jessie Ware to Dua Lipa to Roisin Murphy try on a similar sound. Grande has always evaded trends, or at the very least pre-empted them. It feels out-of-character for “motive” to so brazenly follow.

I don’t think Positions is a death knell for Grande. Her extraordinary run of success to this point suggests that this is an outlier in one of pop’s most consistent careers, not a new standard. It’s hard to forsake Grande a misstep or two, too — every hard worker deserves to phone one in every once in a while. Still, when you hear a line like “No more playin’ safe, let’s take it all the way” on “nasty,” it’s hard not to wish she had applied the same energy to the album.