Entering the new decade with her surprise-released sixth album, the pop princess sounds more confident and assured than ever before. But does she sound better?
A surprise without surprises…
“Broken. from the bottom of my heart. i am so sorry. i don’t have words.”
This tweet was posted hours after a suicide-bomber detonated at an Ariana concert in Manchester, England in May 2017. Fifteen months later, ex-boyfriend Mac Miller died from an overdose, and her relationship with comedian Pete Davidson had come to an end. It is fair to say that Ariana has had some rough times lately. But from these moments of utter despair and deep tragedy, two excellent pop albums–2018’s Sweetener and 2019’s thank u, next–have taken the world by storm and manifested her as the de facto pop princess of the 2010s.
As a new decade appears, Ariana is moving on to a sound in which her trademark pop-sound meets a modern r&b-sound together with classical strokes and strings. The album opens with Madison Calle’s gentle harp picking in the achingly beautiful, almost classical sounding “shut up,” in which Ariana tells us not to worry for her despite all of the horrible events she has gone through (“all them demons helped me see shit differently / so don’t be sad for me”). The second track, “34-35”, is another highlight of the album in which the strokes once again dominate and provide Ariana with a laid-back but pristine setting for her typically humorous way of dealing with more explicitly sexual content in her lyrics (“you might think I’m crazy / the way I’ve been cravin’ / if I put it quite plainly / just gimme the babies”).
After these two magnificent opening tracks, Ariana turns towards a more conventional R&B territory that is neither bad nor especially good, and though the slow duet with the Weeknd, “off the table”, is both well-sung and well-written, it isn’t especially memorable. Ariana is always best when she doesn’t stray too far away from her infectious pop melodies and sugar-sweet falsetto, making the sensual “my hair” and the playful “love language” almost impossible to dislike. Disappointingly, the lead single (and title track) is a relatively generic and highly polished R&B-influenced pop product that doesn’t feel as lived-in and heartfelt as, for example, “thank u, next” did (the title track from her previous album). It works well enough as a modern pop hit, but there are better songs on this album and it is certainly not the banger that Ariana will be remembered for. The album eventually ends on a strong note with “pov,” arguably one of Ariana’s finest vocal performances so far in her career. It feels a bit like a Alicia Keys song but with Ariana’s wonderful soprano in her place.
Ariana feels more confident and self-assured than ever before on Positions, turning faultlessly towards an up-to-date R&B sound while still keeping everything close enough to her trademark pop to avoid disappointing her fans. But while there are no bad songs on Positions, it doesn’t quite gel with the same thoughtfulness as many of the songs on thank u, next did, and neither does it feel as eager to take her music to the next level as it felt on Sweetener. Simply put, while Ariana remains the princess of modern pop music–as she displays on this album several times–she is not the most interesting or confident performer when the R&B grooves turn stronger as she struggles to position her music somewhere between Cardi B and Victoria Monét. Hopefully, Ariana will find that compromise between the outrageous and the classy elements of R&B very soon, and when she does, her incredible ability to captivate the audience with her astonishing voice and clever songwriting is likely to result in the ultimate Ariana album. Even though Positions is far from her best album (thank u, next remains her magnum opus), it certainly doesn’t feel like the beginning of a downward spiral.