She had the talent: the four-octave range and effortless vocal agility that led Gloria Estefan, after hearing the 8-year-old Grande sing “My Heart Will Go On” at a cruise-ship karaoke night, to tell her she was gifted. She had the support system: her close-knit family, familiar to anyone who follows the singer on social media. And she had the work ethic, performing in public regularly before the age of 10 and on Broadway by age 15. “When I was 6 years old, I just kind of decided that’s what I’m going to do with my life, period,” says Grande, who grew up in Boca Raton, Fla. “I manifested it. I knew I would. There was never really a doubt in my mind.”
The singer proceeded to do all she could to reach superstardom, and logged time in the teeny-bopper trenches at Nickelodeon. In 2011, she signed with Republic Records; not long after, she met Mac Miller. He was 20 and she was 19, so naturally they first talked on Twitter. The pair became fast friends, and she invited him to do a verse on her first album’s lead single, 2013’s bouncy ’90s throwback “The Way.” Grande told Billboard at the time that Miller was giving her Pro Tools pointers as they recorded. She added, “If you want to motivate Mac Miller to do anything, just bake cookies.”
Now, she looks back on the song as the first time she really captured her own musical style, what she had been searching for while growing up idolizing India.Arie. “When we made ‘The Way,’ I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m onto something here,’” says Grande. Her face dims slightly; just before this interview, she was working on a new song, which, when she plays it for me later, I realize is about Miller. “It felt like, ‘I should do this forever.’”
“The Way” reached No. 9 on the Hot 100, and like the rest of her debut, it holds up remarkably well. Babyface, one of the album’s producers, helped legitimize Grande’s long-held R&B aspirations. Nevertheless, when she released Yours Truly, Grande was still viewed as a preteen idol, thanks to her history on kiddie TV and diminutive size (she’s exactly 5 feet tall). So on her next two albums, she went even bigger, employing Max Martin and pursuing the kinds of pop hits that would make her undeniable to any listener.
“We started at home base -- me,” Grande says of Yours Truly, “and then we went in this place where I kind of played the game for a little bit, and did the big, big, big pop records. Then we slowly started incorporating my soul back into it -- and that’s where we’ve landed again with ‘Thank U, Next.'”
Grande has put in the work, done everything that was asked of her -- all the tiny compromises that went along with playing the game -- and kept her nose clean (with the exception of a little doughnut glaze, which she erased from the public’s memory with a cleverly self-deprecating sketch on one of the best Saturday Night Live hosting debuts in recent memory). She has hit songs and high Pitchfork ratings, to say nothing of her devoted fans, the Arianators. Grande’s late-night TV appearances -- routine promotional stops for most stars -- are events, thanks to her natural sense of comic timing and gift for impressions both sung and spoken (Google her doing Jennifer Coolidge). She followed all the rules, and arrived at what seemed like the top.