Album Review: Ariana Grande - Positions

Six years ago, from the middle of May until the tail end of August, in 2014, I was unemployed.

I had been unceremoniously laid off1 from the ‘marketing’ job that I had for a very small, family-owned business; I was one of two non-family members within the company, and I was the first one to go—the other non-relative was dismissed within two months after my departure. 

I spent that summer haunting coffee shops and libraries, huddled over a computer, endlessly searching for a new job. By the end of August, I had accepted a position as a writer for the Northfield News.

During the months that I spent unemployed, more or less glued to the laptop, I listened to a lot of music, which also meant, outside of frantically applying for jobs, I was making the time to write about a bulk of the music I was listening to. The archives of Anhedonic Headphones alleges that it was a prolific year—though nothing could really top the year I started the site. In the early days of my fledgling career as a music writer, I didn’t so much have an “I’ll write about anything” attitude, but I was (and I guess I still am) willing to at least take a listen to most things, whatever the genre, and at that point, when the writing reviews took less time because they weren’t nearly as long and complicated and pretentious, I was willing to write about a lot more.

The year prior, much to my surprise, I had found myself flirting with the idea of pop music—like, not popular music, as in “contemporary popular music,” but like pop pop music. The kind of thing you hear on Top 40 radio. The kind of thing young people listen to.

Perhaps it was the coverage she was getting on music websites I regularly frequented, but as the summer came to a close in 2014, and as my stint of unemployment was coming to an end, I found myself listening to My Everything, the second album from singer Ariana Grande. 

The review hasn’t aged well—I am my own worst critic and I really don’t enjoy reading things that I put together within the first two or even three years of “music writing.” To begin with, the piece is incredibly short—like, if you blink, you almost miss it. But it’s also very casual—like, yes, I am aware that sometimes I am a casual writer and that I break the fourth wall and become self-aware and am conscious of the fact that I am a writer, putting together another sprawling review or essay, and I reference these things within the very review. But the review of My Everything isn’t that kind of casual. It’s a sloppy kind of casual. 

I’d like to think that as a writer, I have grown in the last six years.

I didn’t dislike My Everything but I also didn’t find it impressive, and I literally do not remember any of the album’s content. It may or may not still be a folder of mp3s collecting dust on our old computer, which is currently living under the couch. 

Aside from being aware of Grande’s personal life, lived out very publicly via gossip websites, I did not give any attention to her 2016 effort, Dangerous Woman, but eventually, through my wide embrace of pop music, as well as Desus Nice continually repping Grande’s “Breathin’” as his go-to karaoke jam—it is a really good, infectious pop song about anxiety—I have begun to explore Grande’s latter day, relatively acclaimed canon of sweetener, from 2018, and thank u, next, from 2019.

So it is both surprising, and not, that it is a Friday night in late October, and I am deep into a gin and tonic, that I have probably sipped a little too quickly, approaching 700 words into this piece, and am now finally getting to not even the point but at least a thesis, or an introductory statement—it is both surprising and not that I find myself seriously sitting down with positions, the sexually charged, quarantine-recorded new album from Ariana Grande. 

A relatively concise album—14 songs spread across 41 minutes, positions, musically, owes as much to the current landscape of ‘pop’ music as it does to the pop and R&B that came before it—specifically from around the time Grande was an infant in the early 1990s. Lyrically, it is, for lack of a better description, one of the horniest records I have ever listened to—a surprise, at times, coming from someone who cashed Nickelodeon paychecks from 2009 until 2014. But even former teenage stars grow up, have desires, and want to be fucked until the daylight, as Grande coos without batting an eyelash on one of the album’s most suicio tracks, “34 + 35.” 

positions, at its core, is a restless album—both musically, and lyrically, but where it falters within its pacing and substance, it makes up for it in simply being comprised of huge, slick, infectious songs that, when listened to beginning to end, are wildly fun. 


The thing to know going into positions is about how self-aware it is—these aren’t just, like, song songs, if that makes sense; in many of them, Grande has written herself in as the protagonist. They are a reflection of her, and this point in her life and career.

The most obvious example, or, at least the clearest indication arrives on the album’s fourth track, “just like magic,” which, aside from being self-aware, is so so self-aggrandizing, it seems almost satirical. “Wake up in my bed, I just wanna have a good day,” she begins. “Think it in my he’d, then it happens how it should—ayyy. Twelve o’clock: I got a team meeting, then a meditation at like 1:30. Then I ride to the studio listening to some shit I wrote.” 

It continues when she refers to herself as magic, then adds in the song’s refrain, “Just like magic, I’m attractive. I get everything I want ‘cause I attract it.”

With production credits going to TBHits, Shea Taylor, and Mr. Franks, “just like magic” is one of the first songs within the early parts of the record that really stands out, simply because there are myriad elements that come tumbling together to create something, even as ridiculous as the lyrics are, that is captivating. It opens with a glitchy, blippy synthesizer before descending into a bed of low, rumbling tones that keep the rhythm moving along. The song itself slinks—not in a seductive, or even suggestive way—it just has a little bit of bounce to it, thanks to the finger snaps in the background. The arrangement is just interesting enough to assist Grande and her vocal layers, but it’s just reserved enough that it never overpowers, and really, often compliments the tone she’s setting. She, herself, save for some higher octave flourishes, also never really lets loose on this one, creating an unintentional tension that never is released.

Surprisingly, for a pop album, positions is not all that high energy of an album. There are moments when the pacing is picked up, especially in the album’s second half, which is exponentially more enjoyable than its first, but overall, Grande has crafted something that burns slowly—which is maybe the point, considering the album’s conceit of love, lust, and the places where those intersect, whether they are factual, fictional, or a sexually charged mix of both.

It means I want to 69 with you—no shit,” Grande says, almost in a whisper, as “34 + 35” fades out—in case you weren’t certain what the album’s brazen second track was about. Grande claims that it’s a joke, or at least, an exaggeration of sexual appetite. “It’s, like, ridiculous. Because I’m tired after one and it’s time to go to bed,” she explained in an interview regarding the record and its surprisingly forward lyrical content. “For me,” she continued, “It’s at total façade. It’s bullshit. Just kidding.” 

“34 + 35” is explicit in ways that listeners, sex positive or otherwise, might not be ready for—I even covered my mouth with my hand and grasped at her first utterance of the line, “Can you stay up all night? Fuck me ’til the daylight,” and things get even more graphic in their description as the song continues. “You drink it just like water—you say it tastes like candy,” she declares in the song’s second verse, followed by, “So what are you doing tonight? Better say, ‘doin’ you right.

Baby, you might need a seatbelt when I ride it,” she continues in the song’s third verse. “I’ma leave it open like a door—come inside it. Even though I’m wifey, you can hit it like a side chick.”

The thing about “34 + 35” is musically, it, too, slinks but with a playful jauntiness that provides a near whimsical contrast to the song’s lyrics, with plucked strings and a skittering rhythm. 

Grande’s exploration of her sexual desires continues in the album’s second half, and in both “my hair,” and the titular track, the brazenness is dialed back a little bit, with her lyrics relying on flimsy metaphors that get the point across, yes, but also almost collapse under the weight of the task they’ve been given.

With “my hair,” Grande uses her iconic high ponytail as an allegory for intimacy—but for a more reserved experience. In a sharp contrast to asking to demanding her back be blown out on “34 + 35,” here, she sings, “Know this ain’t usually me, but I might let it down for you.” Though she doesn’t remain coy for the entire song—“It’s been way long overdue, just like these inches down my back,” she says in the song’s second verse. “Usually don’t let people touch it but tonight you get a pass.

Musically, “my hair,” is probably one of the most interestingly arranged and produced songs on the record, calling back to the groove-ladened, hip-hop influenced pop R&B of the early 1990s, with an almost jazzy clean sounding, strummed electric guitar, a string accompaniment that works its way in through the song’s refrain, and skeletal drum machine programming to keep the song’s intentional pacing. The arrangement isn’t ‘muted’ or purposefully downplayed, but in its effort to show restraint, it provides the right amount of balance to Grande’s vocals—when she skip and coos through the verses, then lets things soar during the refrain.

It doesn’t take me long through an early listen of positions to understand that Grande is not trying to be a feminist icon, nor do I think anyone is attempting to paint a picture of her in that way. The album’s titular track, and first single, released a week ahead of the album, is probably the most infectious of the bunch, and is probably the ‘biggest’ sounding song—though there are no enormous moments like “Breathin’” anywhere to be found on the album. “positions,” as a song, was the first that Grande is….horny; I just didn’t have an idea of how horny until hearing the rest of the record.

Much like “my hair,” “positions” is a song about sex, and it is exponentially less direct than other songs on the album that are about the same thing. The metaphor of “positions” though, is flimsy as shit, but maybe that’s the point—a little wink to the listener about the easy double entendre. The ‘positions’ in question are, of course, the implied sexual positions, but she also plants herself firmly into a domestic scene here as well during the song’s refrain: “Cookin’ in the kitchen and I’m in the bedroom,” showing that she’s a woman who can do both. As flimsy of a metaphor, or device, as “positions” is based around, it is catchy as hell, with the refrain that soars and plucked strings powering the verses through—and the duality of the ‘positions,’ I have to admit, is kind of clever, despite her seemingly (and knowingly) selling herself short as a woman who knows her places: the kitchen, and the bedroom.

In contrast to the allusions used on “my hair,” and “positions,” Grande does make one final, very clear and explicit statement in the album’s second half on the very aptly titled “nasty.” There should be no question about what she wants, and how she wants it, as the song slithers along woozily and slowly over a thumping bass line and gamesome percussion. “Don’t wanna wait on it—tonight, I wanna get nasty,” she sings in the song’s refrain, all before declaring, surprisingly, “this pussy designed for ya.”


Whether intentional or purely coincidental, the nods to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston, however subtle they are, are present throughout positions, but the most apparent homage is to early 90s Janet Jackson, specifically Janet and The Velvet Rope in terms of production and overall tone. The first time I noticed it is early on in the record, on the Doja Cat2 featuring “motive,” which, while is very of the times, features hints of the kind of dance floor ready beats Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis would have cooked up for Jackson during her time working with them. 

I also picked up on a slight Jackson influence on the late arriving, “love language,” which is one of positions’ best, and most fun tracks, without question. The most uptempo song on the record, tipping a hat to the New Jack Swing sound, it is dizzying in the way the string arrangement swirls around Grande as she taps into a playful sultriness with the song’s quickly paced, mantra-like refrain—“If you’re gonna keep speaking my love language, you can talk your shit all night.” 

positions concludes with another surprisingly self-aware and self-aggrandizing, yet incredible track—the album’s one real ballad, “pov.” 

If wedding receptions are still a thing, because of dat rona, I can see hip, young couples choosing “pov” as the song they have their first dance to. Smartly arranged, the verses allow Grande to build up to the song’s refrain. And even with as self-aggrandizing and self-aware as it is, it still is a tender declaration of love—both the love for someone else, and the way that someone else loves you, and sees you, in return, which can be a difficult thing for anyone to accept. “I wanna love me, the way that you love me,” Grande explains in the refrain. “For all of my pretty, and all of my ugly too—I’d love to see me from your point of view.”

It isn’t a perfect pop album, but in the end, positions is impressive, and fun, regardless. For an album as brief as its running time alleges, it does feel surprisingly slow at times, specifically within its first half—the three song run of “off the table,” “six thirty,” and “safety net” don’t exactly help with the album’s energy level, with the duet “off the table” probably being one of the album’s weakest points. Featuring a guest turn from Abel Tesfaye, the once mysterious, always debauched singer The Weeknd, the song just burns entirely too slowly to be captivating, though Tesfaye’s line “Was in a darker place back then, I was toxic—then I was toxic to someone else,” made me feel, momentarily, very seen and attacked. 

Grande isn’t a feminist icon, nor does she need to be—however, she is an empowered woman nevertheless who, in a relatively short amount of time, has made an incredibly successful career for herself, and isn’t just the voice behind these songs; she’s credited as a writer on all 14 tracks, as well as an executive producer, a producer and arranger, and surprisingly, as an engineer of her vocal recording sessions. She’s an empowered woman, and at not even 30 years old, is confident enough to make an album blurs the line between personal and persona, but also exudes the kind of sexuality that others simply could never dare tackle. Not that is even really a fair, or balanced comparison, but I think of how poorly received and shocking Madonna’s album Erotica was to people when it was released in the early 90s, and how far both contemporary popular music, and culture, as come when it comes to the acceptance of the talk of sex, and sex positivity—but has contemporary popular music, and the culture overall, come far enough? Men singing about sex, or desire, is commonplace, but a woman taking charge of her sexuality and more or less commanding her needs and desires is still hard for some people to hear.

Continuing her run of an album every year, beginning with sweetener in 2018, which just shows that Grande has a tenacious work ethic, positions is not a ‘quarantine album’ that reflects on the times that we are living in, and living through, but it is a reflection on her growth and maturation as a young woman, grappling with success and adoration, all while still attempting to work through the ghosts of her previous, very public relationships, honestly addressing her needs and desires, and being willing to open her heart again. It isn’t an immediate album, but similarly to the way a number of these songs are built around the slow burn, positions takes a minute or two to sink in, and when it does, it reveals myriad layers of enjoyability, accessibility, and yes, brazen sexuality. 

1- This is a bit of a long aside but here we go: from 2011 until 2014, I worked as the marketing assistant for a booklet publishing company. They made short self-helpy booklets about substance abuse, mental health, managing money, resume building, etc. A lot of the business came from military contracts and job centers, and despite any kind of success they had with their product, there was hesitancy about branching out into digital booklets or e-booklets, and overall, the company was mismanaged since it was a family business and there was just a lot of in-fighting between the owner, his wife, and the owner’s brother, as well as mismanagement of money. In the end, I was let go because they could no longer afford to pay me; it sucked, but it was for the best, because I was just a glorified assistant for the main sales representative. But being told I had 90 minutes to gather up my shit, explain all the things I did, and then get out, was not fun. 

2- I literally know nothing about Doja Cat except that she was showing feet in the racial chat, according to Noreaga, which became kind of a joke on “Desus and Mero” and their podcast. 

positions is out now via Republic.