REVIEW: Ariana Grande drops new R&B-influenced album “Positions,” showcases new sound

REVIEW: Ariana Grande explores a new R&B side of her sound in her new album, “Positions.”

Contemporary artists are taking advantage of new schedules after postponed or cancelled tours this year. Taylor Swift went from “Lover” to “folklore” and Lady Gaga went from “Joanne” to “Chromatica,” and now it’s Ariana Grande’s turn. The pop superstar’s latest release strengthens her connection to R&B, which she has flirted with for a while.

While R&B pops up on her albums “thank u, next” and “Sweetener,” thanks to the help of Pharrel Williams and Nicki Minaj, “positions” is a deep dive into Grande’s appreciation for the style and sound. Dreamy synths and catchy vocals paired with trap bass lines and themes from hip-hop bring Grande’s signature soprano image with the sultry sounds of R&B. She is ready to show off her raw talent and fully embrace what R&B has to offer.

The opening track on “Positions” is an update from Grande after a tumultuous era in her career. With the death of her ex, Mac Miller, in 2018, and the world events surrounding 2020, “shut up” is a reminder that Grande is her own woman, and she can think and do what she wants without judgment. It is an open letter to her critics to, frankly, mind their business. Her soprano range riffs and runs accompanied by layered orchestral pieces emphasize her signature sound. “shut up” opens the album with Grande as the pop diva as she dips her toes into the sounds of R&B.

“34+35” comes next as a playful anthem about something you can plug into your calculator. The song starts with a giggle, as Grande depicts what her intentions are for both that evening and the rest of the album. It's flirty, sexy and just a fun song to listen to. The trap beat layered beneath some light orchestral samples embodies the heart of R&B, a simple compliment to the steamy vocals of the artist as they speak of love and life. It serves as a dramatic entrance to the album that showcases Grande’s transition from pop icon to R&B up-and-comer.

The first feature on the album is with none other than pop-R&B superstar, Doja Cat. “motive” is a song about checking a man’s intentions before pursuing anything further, making sure they’re fully along for the ride. Songs about relationships, love and the pursuit of both are common in pop and R&B, so blending these genres and artists is perfect for this track. The vocals are catchy, and here the instrumental is heavy with hip-hop influence. It keeps that emblematic trap beat and just makes you want to shake your hips and sing along.

The next feature is The Weeknd on “off the table.” It’s a dreamy, close-to-acoustic track about losing a lover but still checking to see if “love is off the table.” The beat is slow and airy, and both artists’ vocals are harmonious and boisterous, showing off their chemistry. It’s a passionate ballad that shows off the softer side of R&B that Grande hits right on that mark. It’s my personal favorite from the album.

Grande starts “my hair” with a guitar riff as it falls into a classic R&B beat with snaps and strings. This song is an approval for a potential lover or partner to touch her trademark giant ponytail. It’s a cute, flirty ballad about touch and affection that’s fun to listen to, a theme we’ve seen before. Grande reminds us of the strength of her vocal ability on this track with some whistle tones that we last heard in her last album, “thank u, next.” Her mastery, only comparable to the highest level of vocalists today, defines her as an artist.

“pov” highlights another perfect blend of Grande’s experimentation with R&B, which is proving to be a success. Again, the listener hears a softer side of Grande. She sings about how she wants to be able to see through her partner’s perspective. She wants to be able to love herself and her flaws like her partner. Instrumentally, it builds from ethereal strings and synths until it plateaus at the last chorus with an excellent display of Grande’s vocals. It’s a satisfying, complete end to the album.

As a whole, “positions” is an inside look at Grande’s experimentation with her music. She combines pop with R&B in a way that she has not been able to before. She shows off her blend of traditional pop motifs with fun, fast synths and catchy lyrics and weaves them together with trap beats and hip-hop samples. The complexities of R&B perfectly intersect with her signature sound as a queen of modern pop music, and “positions” cements itself as a proud statement in her discography.

Edited by Chloe Konrad | ckonrad@themaneater.com

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