“I listened to it again on my drive home to see if a change in acoustics and scenery would change my initial reaction…”

Ariana Grande at the 2020 Grammys
photo: Cosmopolitan UK, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Review by Tiana Kirk

Ariana Grande shocked her fans (207 million on Instagram, 79.1 million on Twitter) with a social media post on October 14 saying: “[I] can’t wait to give [you] my album this month”. This surprise album release would be her third in just two years! I’ve spent approximately 150 hours in those two years listening to sweetener and thank u, next with few complaints, so my curiosity was piqued, I had high hopes for another album filled with bops.

Once she announced the album and first single title, Positions, Grande’s sixth studio album usurped the first google search result from a Women’s Health Mag article on the 46 Best Sex Positions – though there is quite a bit of content overlap between the two. Grande has never shied away from expressing her sexuality through her music, so this was not a risky or out-of-character move – but a very risqué one.

The album was released on Friday, October 30, one week after the title single. Featuring Doja Cat, The Weeknd, and Ty Dolla $ign, bops were sure to be imminent.

My coworker, Justin, and I were excited to listen and put it on in the background while we worked. We were baffled at what we heard. With only one producer carried over from her last two albums (Tommy Brown), the sound was different than I had been anticipating – leaning more heavily into a soulful and contemporary R&B vibe.

I listened to it again on my drive home to see if a change in acoustics and scenery would change my initial reaction (it did not).

I listened to it a third time while writing this review and will not likely be giving the full album another go for quite some time, if at all.

There were a few redeeming moments throughout – My Hair, Obvious, and POV, but the rest of the album failed to reach bop status. The majority of Grande’s most self-contemplative album to date, unfortunately, comes across more as crass musings from a middle schooler’s diary about her crush than any semblance of an adult relationship – though it is about her current partner, Dalton Gomez, a Los Angeles real estate agent. Sonically, the album did what it set out to do well, but what it set to do out wasn’t anything worth writing home about. It is worth writing about here though.

Shut Up (2:37)

The opening track begins with soft, climactic vibrato strings and cuts into a plucky, staccato combination once vocals come in. The lyrics are mostly understandable, though more of a spoken diction than sung, but you’d definitely want the lyrics in front of you if you want to catch the verses. The chorus is cheeky and pointed at people who spend more time and energy on spewing negativity about people they don’t know than focusing on their own life. “How you be spending your time, huh? How you be using your tongue, huh? You be so worried ‘bout mine, can’t even get yourself none. You know you sound so dumb.” (Possibly pointed at me reviewing this album…) The rest of the song is orchestral and grand, ending with an odd combination of string notes that sounds like The Sound of Music meets Mario64 fading into the off-putting THX drone movie goers are familiar with.

34+35 (2:53)

The orchestral vibes continue in this playfully flirty and overtly sexual track. Beginning with a laugh, more plucky strings accompany Grande’s sweet nasal-y voice throughout. This one has some snare drums added giving it some depth – sonically, not lyrically. She keeps with her habit heard in past albums of adding layers upon layers of various harmonies and echoes/call-backs of lyrics. I didn’t love the lyrics, personally: some were awkwardly rushed to fit with the beat, e.g. “saving up my energy” in a line that should have only had six syllables to fit with the rest of the pre-chorus.  Some of the innuendos were rather tactless (this is coming from an extremely sex-positive reviewer here), in what feels like a poorly executed attempt to express intimate feelings that maybe should have just been kept for her boyfriend’s ears. E.g. “Even though I’m wifey you can hit it like a side chick, don’t need no side dick.”

Motive ft. Doja Cat (2:47)

I really cannot get on board with this track. There are some exceptions to my music taste, when an artist I usually enjoy puts out something that is not immediately catchy or pleasing to listen to – I will listen a few more times to see if it’s an acquired taste. This song is not. It feels a little too all-over-the-place, very spontaneous in the worst way. The intro features a pitch-shifted nonsense word after some James Bond-feeling strings and cuts to 90’s style synth percussion (think Marky Mark and The Funky Bunch). The repetitive chorus and same-word rhymes are off-putting – six “what’s your motive”s make up the chorus. Doja Cat’s feature rap is raspy and insubstantial, and as much as I dislike the song, I think it would be much better without this bridge.

Just like Magic (2:29)

With the quick, electric synth intro, I was not expecting the actual song to be reminiscent of early 2000’s white-boy R&B (e.g. Down by Jay Sean). It is repetitive, shallow, and self-celebrational to an extreme. Sweetener’s Successful (“It feels so good to be this young and have this fun and be successful, I’m so successful”) and Thank U, Next’s 7 Rings (“My receipts be lookin’ like phone numbers, if it ain’t money then wrong number, black card is my business card, the way it be settin’ the tone for me”) have got nothing on this track. With lyrics like: “Just like magic, I’m attractive, I get everything I want ‘cuz I attract it,” this song does not sound like something coming from a twenty-seven-year-old woman with a Grammy for Album of the Year. The chorus is annoyingly repetitive and it, like all previous songs, fades out on instrumentals. I’ve been hoping for some semblance of a strong finish, it sounds lazy rather than intentional.

Off the Table ft. the Weeknd (3:59)

The song begins with slow intervals of kind of metronomic drumming with an odd echoed unintelligible, possibly male or pitch shifted whisper(?) before the vocals come in. The lyrics are soft, introspective and honest but the transition into the chorus feels awkward and rushed and while it could be trying to represent the fluttery anxiety of the question, “If I can’t have you, is love completely off the table?” it feels sloppily placed within the song. The Weeknd features and makes lyrical references to past songs, The Hills – off his second album, and Love Me Harder – his previous collab with Grande from her album My Everything. I find his vocals difficult to enjoy in this song, they sound overcorrected (like bad autotune) and shaky. This song continues in the album’s instrumental fade out pattern and I am continuing in my disappointment in it.

Six Thirty (3:04)

I had to google the meaning of the song title. Being “down like six thirty” is in reference to an analog clock in which both hands are pointed downwards. The song begins and I feel like I have been abducted by aliens and have woken up in their spacecraft. I have listened to this song about five times now and I understand that she and her partner, whom she sings for in the second verse, are insecure and wanting to commit to this serious relationship once they know the other is down for it.

That being said, the lyrics speak more to an unhealthy relationship between teenagers than a playful or flirty questioning of a healthy adult one. Ex. “You know I’m very impatient, might change my mind, so don’t keep me waiting”, “You know you be on some bullshit, act so possessive and crazy, but I know it’s just ‘cause you love me”, and “When I’m old and stuff, will you still have a crush?”. The chorus is just her singing “are you down” seven times and the song ends with sixteen seconds of fading out instrumentals after the inspirationally concluding line: “yuh”.

Safety Net ft. Ty Dolla Sign (3:28)

The unintelligible pitch shifted sounds are back to start this next track. I am coming to terms that this is not going to be an album focused on Grande’s incredible vocals. The verses are all spoken and are lyrically basic, which would normally be forgivable if they were sung impressively – or at all. The lyrics feel too personal – as if the listener walked into the middle of a conversation and was not given any context while it continued. Ex. “How’d we get here so damn fast? Only you can tell me that, baby, ‘cause you know I’m coming back.” Coming back from where?? Ty Dolla $ign is not an artist I am familiar with but, like Doja Cat in Motive, I find his addition to be more of burden than a blessing. (I have enjoyed featured artists on Grande’s work in the past – honest!)

My Hair (2:38)

This is a real contender to be the first song off the album with replay value to it! Crackly gentle rhythmic guitar, reminiscent of a nineties rom-com ending track, leads us into actual singing of the first verse. With the vocals comes percussion and it adds this soulful, jazzy vibe leading into the chorus. It feels nostalgic and sensual with the addition of horns (I got a laugh imagining Grande’s crass sense of humour requesting to make the song sound horn-y), and the lengthy cry of the word “hair” throughout the chorus. Lyrically, the song doesn’t offer much, (“don’t you be scare to run your hands through my hair, baby, ‘cause that’s why it’s there”) but Grande makes up for it, showcasing her talent for whistle tones. She uses the remaining thirty-seven seconds to “sing” the final chorus with the impressively high and controlled notes. An extremely pleasant surprise of a song.

Nasty (3:20)

The whistle tones continue in Nasty, a song that, lyrically, lives up to its name. It is quite the juxtaposition from Grande’s soft, feminine voice. The intro is reminiscent of and easily confused with Grande’s debut single, The Way ft. Mac Miller, but it quickly makes its return to blatant sexual overtones with lyrics like: “Like this pussy designed for ya…..Bet I look nice on you” and “Get all the homies to bounce, slink from the bed to the couch and get to know how I’m feeling inside”. Nasty features some more light synth percussion throughout the verses but the intro and chorus are quite bass-heavy. This song is the lyrical equivalent of seeing two students eat each other’s faces in between classes. Like… Ariana, Dalton, you can do whatever you’d like and consent to in the privacy of your own homes, but my locker/mind is not a willing participant in your pornographic displays of affection.

West Side (2:12)

This is the shortest track on the record and both in length and content I am left wanting more. I cannot make out what instrument is being distorted here but it, second to the pre-chorus (actual singing!), is the most interesting part of the song. Even with that accolade, the song is sung mostly in Grande’s lower register and it follows the low-key, monotonous pattern of most of the album. The chorus is confusing and a let-down, especially after the build up of the pre-chorus, vocally. Lyrically, it feels as though she is trying to convince her partner to remove thinking from the decision to be with her. She sings, “Hold up, there shouldn’t be no hold up, there’s more love if you follow emotions”, after the opening line, “I don’t wanna think too much, I just wanna feel”.

Love Language (2:59)

This song would fit perfectly in Grande’s fourth album, Sweetener, with the upbeat strings and layering of softly sung harmonies – sounding most like Blazed. Even lyrically, the track is similar to the Grammy winning album, with mentions of sweetness (“Baby, it’s been a minute since I had something so sweet” to Sweetener’s “then you come through like the sweetener you are to bring the bitter taste to a halt”) and anxiety (“You the medication when I’m feeling anxious, that’s the kind of shit I like” to Breathin’s “You take my cares away, I can so overcomplicate, people tell me to medicate”). It is unfortunate that one of the best songs on this album is sonically closest to the more skippable tracks off her most successful album.

Positions (2:52)

The title track of the album is the best choice for lead single but that’s not saying much. The plucky strings and higher bpm than most tracks so far make it the most radio friendly and representative of the rest of the album (Love Language excluded), but it is difficult to make sense of the lyrics through Grande’s poor enunciation and removal of various verbs and definite articles.

The story the song tells is one of an over-romanticized relationship (e.g. “Heaven sent you to me”, “Perfect, perfect you’re too good to be true”) in which Grande is bending over backwards and doing “some shit [she] usually don’t do” to prove her affections to her partner, going so far as to say that there is “nothin’ [she] wouldn’t do” for him. The sentiment is reminiscent of her song, Pete Davidson, with lyrics: “fell from the sky into my lap, and I know you know that you’re my soul mate and all that”. With a cleverly timed pause, the second line of Positions, “I’m just hoping I don’t re….peat history”, nods at this failed relationship.

Obvious (2:28)

Without an instrumental intro, Obvious jumps right into lyrics that, while flirtatious, are sweet and longing for domestic bliss – a pleasant change up from the rest of the album. Ex. “Nothing else, nothing more important, makes me want to believe in love, I love the thought of us in the evening”. The verses are actually sung, and the chorus is what I’ve been wanting out of this album for the past thirty-five minutes: fun, upbeat, dreamy in a good way vocals. The song doesn’t have any lulls, it is attention grabbing and holds you from start to finish. Nothing about it feels forced. This is a very close second to POV for best song on the album for me and has been placed on my “Roadtrip” playlist.

POV (3:21)

This soft introspective final track has strong vocals and lyrics with substance making me wish the rest of the album were more like POV (Point of View). It is slower, but very honest and emotional – an orchestral ballad to her partner. It is filled with gratitude and insecurities that Grande feels safe enough to express. There are no crude or shallow remarks throughout, but a three-minute-long declaration of what a healthy, loving relationship between two imperfect adults should feel like.

She sings to her partner, “I wanna love me the way that you love me, for all of my pretty and all of my ugly too, I’d love to see me from your point of view”, continuing the chorus you can feel her heart has been put into, “I wanna trust me the way that you trust me, ‘cause nobody ever loved me like you do, I’d love to see me from your point of view”. While this song does not make up for the rest of the album, I would highly recommend it with a glass of wine – whether you are in a relationship or not, if you are prone to romanization and crying when you feel too much. Easily my favourite on the album and a high note to end on.

Though the album picked up at the end, with only three of fourteen songs (21%) having any replay value, this could not stop the album as a whole from being disappointing. Surprisingly, I am not deterred from being excited and hopeful for her next album, whenever that may be. I have my fingers crossed that this was a momentary lapse in judgement to cash in on the quarantine album release trend and that she will make a comeback from this let down.