I’ve always found albums that indulge in the overall context and narrative of an artist’s career to be much more interesting to consume than a standalone project. Kanye West has easily captivated listeners for the past decade this way, from his redemption-arc defining My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to his baffling Christian-centric turn with Jesus Is King. Fans and detractors alike were brought along for a ride that culminated in albums that were fueled by a driving narrative, creating listener expectations both music and context-wise.
Sweetener, Ariana Grande’s 4th studio album, had a similar narrative push behind it. Hot off the heels of her much-publicised relationship (and sudden engagement) with comedian Pete Davidson and her first release since 2017’s Manchester concert bombing, Ariana’s career up to that point felt like a whirlwind of despair and affection that spiraled its way into headlines worldwide. Meanwhile, the growing online concern for her mental health continued to bubble throughout the album’s rollout.
With Sweetener‘s release, she regained control of her career’s narrative; as the record served as a statement of Ariana’s self-declared triumph over trauma under the comforting blanket of self-healing and losing herself in a newfound romance. The music reflected this too, as for the first time, Ariana crafted an album of a singular vision and theme. It was the era where she finally came into her own as one of the world’s leading pop stars.
Her follow-up record – Thank U, Next, on the other hand, took charge of the narrative rather than be lead by it. Released 6 months after Sweetener, the title track/lead single took the burgeoning narrative of her breakup with fiancé Pete Davidson along with the sudden passing of ex-lover Mac Miller, and steered it towards a powerful re-affirmation of the self-love that Ariana preached on her last album.
No longer being defined by the public perception labelled on her by the media, Ariana had the power to divert her career’s narrative in whatever direction she wanted. Literally transforming before the world’s eyes – she went from a pop wunderkind with a mighty voice, to freeing herself from being a mere victim of circumstance, to an artist who’s wholly confident in herself and her vision. Thank U, Next became the album that positioned (heh) her at the forefront of the pop music industry.
If Sweetener was a bridge between the old and new Ariana, Thank U, Next is the launchpad of her career into an almost untouchable superstardom – given the relative success of her string of loosies since the album dropped.
This makes the release of her latest studio album Positions so interesting to me in comparison to the two projects that came before it. There wasn’t much of a buildup towards it, nor was there any public narrative that she had address through the album. All it took was one great lead single (with a deliciously good cover art) and a surprise release date a week later for the record to take over the world.
However with the lack of a narrative push, Positions feels…riskless. Like a product from an artist that has nothing left to prove. That’s not to say the album’s bad though, far from it. It’s slowly making its way up as my 2nd favourite Ariana album (behind TUN). Still, after the blockbuster presentation of her previous two records, Positions begins to feel like a footnote in the grand scheme of her discography.
Music-wise, the album sounds like a comfortable blend of Sweetener and TUN paired with a strong R&B influence at its roots. This evolution made sense since it’s the sound that listeners now associate her with, but because of this, Positions then feels inseparable from the former two. From the sounds to the aesthetics down to the ‘all lowercase’ song titles, the record plays like an epilogue to the trilogy that Ariana started in 2017.
Yet, there’s no thematic resolution to be found on Positions, only horniness. Under the in-your-face explicitness, however, lies quiet introspections of learning how to love again through grief and trauma. If anything, the album is a brief final sentence rather than the entire closing chapter. A victory lap of the sounds that will grow to define her career while hinting at the possibilities she could work on, Positions is a reset of Ariana Grande’s career.
Without much stakes to the album, the narrative that Ariana had painted for her career came to a screeching halt, which is a welcome break given that it’s her 3rd album in two years. A never ending narrative can only harm an artist’s brand due to oversaturation (looking at you, Kanye). This makes Positions almost refreshing to listen to, allowing her music some room to breathe while serving as a quick palette cleanser before we enter the next chapter of Ariana’s career.