After playing a supporting character on Nickelodeon's "Victorious" for the past three years, Ariana Grande is taking center stage as both a singer and an actress in 2013. While filming a starring role in new Nickelodeon series "Sam & Cat," the 19-year-old Florida native has logged the first mainstream hit of her recording career with "The Way," featuring Mac Miller. After hitting iTunes on March 26 through Republic Records, the song sold 219,000 downloads in its first week, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and debuts at No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Grande recorded the flirtatious R&B-tinged single, which samples Big Pun's 1998 hit "Still Not a Player," after meeting with U.K. producer Harmony Samuels earlier this year and immediately connecting with the slinky beat. "I cut my vocal on it," Grande says, "and then Mac and I had been hanging out for a while at that point, and I was like, 'I really want you to feature on this record. What do you think?' And he said, 'Sounds like a hit to me.'"
Grande has been slowly piecing together a debut album while splitting her time playing Cat Valentine on "Victorious"; her 2011 single "Put Your Hearts Up" has sold 120,000 downloads. But "The Way" fast-tracked her career by grabbing the attention of Republic co-founder Monte Lipman as well as Charlie Walk, who started as the label's executive VP in late January.
"It was 8:00 one night, and I heard a song coming from Monte's office through my wall," Walk recalls. "He called me down and played a video, a DIY video of Ariana Grande. We heard the song and I immediately made the decision to set it up [and] put the song out."
Walk describes Grande as a "triple threat": She sings and acts, but is also a viral star, staying actively engaged with her 5.4 million Twitter followers and 2.6 million Facebook fans. She's also the only Nickelodeon star signed to Republic: While most Nick-affiliated recording acts, including Miranda Cosgrove and "Victorious" star Victoria Justice, have deals with Sony, sources tell Billboard that Grande requested and was given a "carve out" deal when she joined "Victorious," leaving her to sign with any label she pleased.
"The Way" will lead Grande's Republic debut, which she says was completed but may be flushed out with new tracks before hitting stores. "All of these really amazing songs are coming out of nowhere, and most of them are from Harmony," she says, adding that she hopes to collaborate with rapper Big Sean on the album.
According to Walk, the next few months of Grande's recording career will consist of laying down new tracks, lining up TV appearances and performing at radio events like KIIS-FM Los Angeles' Wango Tango concert, where she'll share the stage with acts like Bruno Mars, Demi Lovato and Will.i.am on May 11. "We'd love to have an album out for the fourth quarter," Walk says. "I'd love to have a body of work by end of summer and get ready to launch multiple singles. That's the goal and that's the plan."
As "The Way" starts getting a heavy push to top 40 radio, Grande will continue filming the first season of "Sam & Cat," a spinoff from "Victorious" that will premiere later this year. Grande says the new show will appeal to an even younger audience than the tween-friendly "Victorious," which sets up a potential disconnect between her TV role and her more mature singing persona. (At the end of the music video for "The Way," which has earned 3.3 million YouTube views since its March 28 premiere, Grande and Miller share a few unabashed kisses.)
"When I do 'Sam & Cat,' and when I act as Cat, of course I'm still going to be there for my younger fans," Grande says. "But I'm also growing up--I'm almost 20. I'm not going to do anything crazy, but I want to do music that I'm passionate about."