For the third time in three years, Ariana Grande has debuted a new set on top of the Billboard 200 albums chart. In 2018, it was Sweetener, last year it was Thank U, Next, and in 2020 it’s Positions, her fifth total leader on the chart.
Positions bows atop the 200 with 174,000 equivalent album units moved, easily enough for the No. 1 spot this week, though still well short of the 360k in first-week units put up by Thank U, Next in its first frame. Like that set, however, it sees every one of its tracks make the Billboard Hot 100 in its debut week — led by its title track, which slips to No. 2 after debuting atop the listing the week before.
What do Grande’s first-week numbers mean? And what might be next for her after this trio of full-lengths? Billboard staffers answer these questions and more below.
1. Positions becomes Ariana’s third straight studio album to debut at No. 1, with 174,000 first-week equivalent album units moved — less than half of the 360,000 units moved by 2019’s Thank U, Next in its first week. What do you think is the biggest reason for the drop in numbers?
Katie Atkinson: I would say it’s the muted fanfare leading up to this release versus the previous pair. Sweetener was Grande’s first album after the horrifying bombing outside her Manchester Arena concert and was released amid her lightning-rod engagement to Pete Davidson. Thank U, Next followed only six months later and its lead single of the same name cheekily referenced her broken engagement, as well as callbacks to her relationships with Big Sean and late rapper Mac Miller. Add on top of that a million other little things — a buzzy Mean Girls-themed video for “Thank U, Next,” a Madonna voice-over in the “God Is a Woman” video — and you have a promotional monster.
For Positions? She announced it was coming the same month via Twitter and put out one music video ahead of its release. Her star power and artistic consistency still took it to No. 1, but a quieter No. 1.
Gab Ginsberg: Positions didn’t benefit from merchandise/album bundles due to new chart rules, so it makes sense that the number is lower. Still, Grande landed the highest one-week total for an album since the change, so that’s impressive!
Jason Lipshutz: The lack of merch bundles or concert ticket redemption offers is by far the biggest reason for the drop-off in equivalent album units; it’s only been a few weeks since that type of bundling ceased to count toward the Billboard 200, so we’re still in a period of adjusting expectations. With that in mind, a No. 1 bow of 174,000 units is pretty strong — and considering the fact that all 14 tracks on the album hit the Hot 100 this week, with “Positions” topping the chart last week, Grande shouldn’t feel a whiff of disappointment with these numbers.
Heran Mamo: The tweaking of the Billboard 200 chart rules, where merchandise/album bundles and ticket/album bundles no longer count (effective Oct. 8) definitely plays some role. But I want to say the biggest reason for the drop is a combination of the element of surprise and the timing of this album. Sure, Taylor Swift’s surprise set Folklore gained 289.85 million streams, beating out the 173.54 million streams Positions had in the first week. But this first week coincided with a crucial presidential election Grande was promoting more than her actual album. So if you’re a dedicated Arianator, your task was twofold — make your voice heard by voting and listen to hers on the new album — and the dragging results of the race might have caused a disruption in streams (and conversely, a major increase in streams for other political anthems).
Andrew Unterberger: The lack of bundles is almost certainly the biggest factor, but I still think it’s safe to say the excitement wasn’t the same for Positions as it was for Thank U, Next. Of course, that set was helped by two rapturously received advance singles in the months leading up to it, and Positions only had its still-successful title track one week before — remember that while both albums charted every track on the Hot 100, TUN secured that chart’s entire top three in its week of release, while Positions just has the title track in the top five. That’s likely due to some degree of Ari exhaustion, Positions not having as many immediate and obvious “hits” as TUN, and there being just a lot of other stuff going on right now.
2. “34+35” has easily the biggest debut of the set’s new songs with its No. 8 bow this week. Do you think it will end up the song with the biggest presence outside of the album (besides the title track)?
Katie Atkinson: Actually, my money’s on “Motive.” Its slinky verses fit well with the overall adult vibe of the album, but the chorus goes straight to the dance floor, where Ari always thrives. With the added bonus of buzzy 2020 breakout star Doja Cat — who earned her own Hot 100 No. 1 this year with “Say So” — it seems poised for chart success.
Gab Ginsberg: I hope so! It’s personally my favorite song on the album besides “Positions,” and if it gets an equally elaborate music video/single treatment, I don’t see why it can’t soar as high.
Jason Lipshutz: I’d bet on the Doja Cat collaboration “Motive,” which sounds like the most traditional pop radio offering on the album, and harkens back to Grande’s past success with collaborations like “Problem” with Iggy Azalea and “Side To Side” with Nicki Minaj. “34+35” could be a streaming hit for weeks to come, but “Motive,” less explicit and with a bigger hook, is the song that both my 65-year-old dad and 12-year-old niece would keep on when it comes on top 40 radio.
Heran Mamo: I think “pov” might give “34+35” a run for its money. Even though the album’s closer debuted down at No. 40 on the Hot 100 this week, it’s getting a lot of traction from other artists and fans. Lizzo posted a luscious video of herself dancing to it, Chloe Bailey of Chloe x Halle said the song was one of her favorites, and there’s an entire TikTok challenge dedicated to it, so you know what that means (*cough cough* *not COVID*, instant popularity). Lyrically speaking, the tear-jerking ode makes listeners look at themselves through the eyes of their significant others and understand what’s so special about them: “For all of my pretty and all of my ugly too/ I’d love to see me from your point of view.”
Andrew Unterberger: “pov” seems to be the fan favorite, and more importantly, the TikTok favorite, so that probably gets my vote for the album’s next breakout track — and indeed, it’s already starting to creep up the daily rankings at Spotify and Apple Music. “34+35” should be a worthy contender, though, since it’s catching on early on pop radio, and might actually be a more natural fit there (explicit adult content aside) than “Positions” anyway. “pov” might burn brighter but quicker, while “34+35” could be a hit for the long haul.
3. Outside of the early “hits” on the album, what less-immediate track on Positions are you currently digging for giving you something you hadn’t heard from Ariana before?
Katie Atkinson: I’m loving “My Hair” for how she goes full Mariah on it. Of course, she’s been likened to Carey since the beginning of her career — a comparison that she has sometimes embraced but also seemingly begrudged — so it’s exciting to just hear her let loose with the whistle tones atop a ’90s R&B track. She’s obviously staked her own claim as a pop star now, so why not throw it back to the days of Butterfly, just for fun?
Gab Ginsberg: I’m utterly relaxed when I listen to “pov,” whose soothing melody and strings remind me that Grande can do sweet just as well as she does sassy.
Jason Lipshutz: I ranked “pov” as the best song on Positions, and still feel like it’s the ballad that Grande has been working up to her entire career, technically impressive yet emotionally graceful, poignant in its thematic construction but still a blast if you just want to hear top-notch vocals for three minutes. Praying that we get a killer awards-show performance of “pov” before this era ends — maybe at the 2022 Grammy Awards, if Positions is up for album of the year?
Heran Mamo: “Safety Net,” feat. Ty Dolla $ign, sounds much different than the rest of her body of work, and the ballad might be the only song that sounds appropriately haunted for being released the day before Halloween. The subject matter — being scared to fall deeper in love with somebody without a safety net — isn’t backed by the usual string arrangements of the other tracks on Positions and instead features chilling background “oohs” and is driven by pensive percussion. She ditches her signature whistle tones so she can croon in a lower register, which isn’t a super popular territory within her singing but definitely covered by her impeccable vocal range.
Andrew Unterberger: “Off the Table” probably doesn’t have quite the commercial potential of her previous Weeknd team up “Love Me Harder,” but I enjoy the two contemporary pop greats just going for it with their vocals, with a healthy amount of self-indulgence that such stars rarely allow themselves these days. In general, Grande’s vocals are at a career-best throughout Positions, and I think “Off the Table” might be her finest showcase.
4. Do you feel like Positions marks something of an end to a chapter in Grande’s career? If so, what kind of territory would you like to see her explore next?
Katie Atkinson: I feel like most albums released post-March 2020 were passion projects for artists who all of a sudden had a wealth of time on their hands after running on the pop-star treadmill for so many years. A clear schedule can lead to a clearer head, so an artistic reset — like Taylor Swift going back to basics on Folklore or Ariana revisiting the more R&B sound of her earlier projects — makes sense this year, but also might end up feeling like an outlier in their catalogs over time. As for what territory I’d like to see her explore next, Grande can do no wrong when it comes to genre (she’s already conquered pop, dance, R&B and even hip-hop, in my mind), so I’d like more autobiographical lyrics from her because she’s most interesting as a personality when she’s a wide-open book.
Gab Ginsberg: If one considers Positions as the third in a trilogy (the first entries being Sweetener and Thank U, Next), it’s definitely the “farewell” chapter. I’ve loved Grande’s take on R&B and orchestral-pop, and would love to see her go even more Broadway in her next era, à la Panic! at the Disco’s Pray for the Wicked.
Jason Lipshutz: It’s hard to say, really, and that’s what makes Grande such a fascinating pop artist. I guess you could say that she dives deeper into R&B and full-on sex jams from here… but we’re only a few months removed from Grande conquering the Hot 100 with the Lady Gaga house scorcher “Rain On Me,” and less than two years removed from “7 Rings” pointing her toward a very fruitful exploration of trap production. I have no idea what Grande’s post-Positions sound will be, and that’s a great feeling.
Heran Mamo: I don’t see Positions closing any doors in Grande’s career. If anything, it showed me how many she’s been opening for newcomers whom she tapped for this project. Thank U, Next was a much more hip-hop leaning record, but it took her until Positions to work with rap producers Murda Beatz and London on da Track. I really want her to open the door back up for Cashmere Cat so they can release more atmospheric electro-R&B bangers, like their My Everything track “Be My Baby” and 2015 single “Adore.” She’ll be switching positions from the bedroom to the club if she builds off that vibe again.
Andrew Unterberger: As much as Ariana has hated to talk about eras during this phase of her career, it does feel like Positions is sort of the final part of the trilogy that started with Sweetener — three albums of intimate R&B with timely, personal lyrics and sporadic pop explosiveness. But the next album might very well make viewing this period of Grande’s career this way feel ridiculous, so we’ll just have to wait and see. Personally, I’m still holding out for the full-length collab album with Billie Eilish and Finneas.
5. At the end of last year, we named Ariana Grande the greatest pop star of 2019 — on a scale from 1-10, how do you feel she’s done at defending her crown for 2020?
Katie Atkinson: 10! Even before she casually surprised us with a super compelling No. 1 album, she earned her third, fourth and fifth Hot 100 No. 1 hits thanks to duets with Justin Bieber and Lady Gaga and the Positions lead single. And all three of those No. 1s were debuts! Her Midas touch remains intact and she’s only built on the pop-star capital she earned last year.
Gab Ginsberg: Let’s go with a 7. As much as I love Ari — and she’s doing great; three No. 1 hits hardly make for an “off” year — I think the 2020 crown goes to Taylor Swift, whose surprise album Folklore is still in my rotation all these weeks later.
Jason Lipshutz: Three No. 1 debuts on the Hot 100, high-powered collaborations, another No. 1 album and also some random fun like popping up on Jim Carrey’s Showtime series? Give her a 9, with two months left to potentially push that total up one more.
Heran Mamo: About a 7. The events of 2019 and the normal, unfettered process of producing music defined her ascension: She took personal risks by making confessional bops about surviving the terrorist attack on her Manchester concert, dealing with the death of Mac Miller, and ending her engagement with Pete Davidson. And she took musical risks by flirting heavily with hip-hop production, releasing Thank U, Next just six months after Sweetener, notching her second-ever No. 1 hit (“7 Rings”) on the Hot 100 three months after “Thank U, Next” became her first, went on a sold-out 101-date Sweetener World Tour, and dropped a K, Bye For Now (SWT Live) live album from the tour.
Now it’s hard for Grande to defend her crown in a year like 2020, where coronavirus has effectively shut down the world and people are just trying to survive, not necessarily thrive. However, both star-studded collaborations she had this year with Justin Bieber (“Stuck with U”) and Lady Gaga (“Rain on Me”) debuted at No. 1, and she appointed herself as Madame President of the United States in the “Positions” music video. That signals to me that a) Grande’s already proven herself to be a pro at the back-to-back No. 1 debut singles just from last year’s warm-up and b) she only envisions herself at the top and makes the rest of the world get comfortable seeing her in the highest places.
Andrew Unterberger: I’d say 7.5. While her numbers have remained very impressive in 2020 — three No. 1 debuts on the Hot 100 and one on the Billboard 200 — again, the excitement just isn’t the same as it was in 2018-2019, and in that respect I’d posit that she’s been passed this year by Taylor Swift, Harry Styles, Dua Lipa, BTS, probably even her “Table” partner The Weeknd. (Of those three No. 1 Hot 100 debuts, none managed to spend multiple weeks at the position.) Still, she’s undoubtedly still in the discussion, which is all that really matters — and when live music becomes a thing again, there’ll basically be no limit to the kind of venues she should be able to fill and bills she should be able to top.