On last week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart, Ariana Grande extended a record that she already set herself earlier this year when “Positions,” the lead single from her sixth album of the same name, launched at No. 1 on the tally (the song slips to No. 2 on this week’s chart, as Grande’s Positions album starts at No. 1 on the Billboard 200).
With “Positions” crashing in atop the Hot 100, Grande now has five total No. 1 debuts on the chart: “Thank U, Next,” “7 Rings,” “Stuck With U” with Justin Bieber, “Rain On Me” with Lady Gaga, and “Positions.”
All five hits were released in the past two years — after Grande couldn’t quite snag a No. 1 single for the first five years of her career. Now, there might not be a more bankable pop star than Grande when it comes to launching a new track atop the Hot 100, and the record she set earlier this year with “Rain On Me” has only grown.
So how did she become such a sure thing for a chart-topping bow? Here are the five reasons why Ariana Grande has become the new queen of the Hot 100 No. 1 debut:
1. She’s always been a top 10 mainstay.
Although Grande didn’t reach the top of the Hot 100 until she released the lead single of her fifth full-length in 2018, she had been getting close to the summit since the beginning of her pop career in 2013, when her debut single “The Way” with Mac Miller reached No. 9 on the chart. In the years that followed, Grande amassed 10 total top 10 hits prior to “Thank U, Next,” including the 2014 smash “Problem” with Iggy Azalea, that made it to No. 2. All six of Grande’s albums boast at least one top 10 hit on their track list, demonstrating the consistency that helped make her a headliner well before she had guided a single to No. 1.
2. She released Thank U, Next, which pushed her to a new level.
Grande turned the pop world on its head in November 2018, when she surprise-released a new single titled “Thank U, Next.” After all, her fourth album, Sweetener, was less than three months old, and its various singles (“No Tears Left To Cry,” “God Is a Woman,” “Breathin”) were still pop radio mainstays. Part of the impetus for releasing the single, which was Grande’s first since the death of ex-boyfriend Mac Miller and her breakup with Pete Davidson, was the desire to drop new music on her own timeframe, regardless of where she was at in a standard album cycle.
“My dream has always been to be — obviously not a rapper, but, like, to put out music in the way that a rapper does,” Grande told Billboard in her 2018 cover story. “It’s just like, ‘Bruh, I just want to f–king talk to my fans and sing and write music and drop it the way these boys do. Why do they get to make records like that and I don’t?’”
Ultimately, Grande’s speedy return with “Thank U, Next” — which referenced Miller, Davidson and other exes in her lyrics, and included a music video that honored beloved teen films like Mean Girls and Bring It On — yielded the first Hot 100 No. 1 single, and No. 1 debut, of her career. The title track to Thank U, Next spent seven nonconsecutive weeks atop the chart, and its follow-up, the Rodgers and Hammerstein-interpolating “7 Rings,” notched another No. 1 debut and eight total weeks atop the chart after its January 2018 release. Grande had been a major star prior to the release of her Thank U, Next album — just look at the impressive performance of the full-length that arrived six months before it — but her fifth project made it clear that she now ranked among the very biggest acts in modern pop.
3. She released smart collaborations during her downtime.
At the end of last year, Grande released K Bye for Now (SWT Live), a live album that captured her whirlwind Sweetener world tour (which also encompassed her Thank U, Next era) — and, as its title signaled, would lead into a professional break for the pop star. Grande did stay relatively quiet during the first two-thirds of 2020, save for a pair of savvy collaborations: “Stuck With U,” a quarantine anthem with Justin Bieber with proceeds donated to pandemic relief funds, and “Rain On Me,” a dance-pop team-up with Lady Gaga for her Chromatica album.
Both tracks debuted at No. 1 on the Hot 100, just two weeks apart from each other; “Rain On Me” became the first collaboration between female artists to start atop the chart, and made Grande the first artist to have four No. 1 debuts in the chart’s history. Teaming up with superstars certainly helped amplify the songs’ respective reaches — Bieber and Gaga had each scored top 10 hits on their own earlier in 2020, and their fan bases are among the most rabid in pop — but Grande’s own commercial power, at an all-time high following Thank U, Next, also ensured massive chart bows to tide her fans over in between projects.
4. She engineered a surprising, well-executed return.
Can we consider Positions, Grande’s sixth studio album unveiled last month, the first surprise full-length release of her career? After all, Grande didn’t reveal she had been working on a proper follow-up to Thank U, Next until Oct. 14, and that album was released in full just 16 days later. In between we received “Positions,” a title track with a mellow energy, main hook that fully blooms upon repeated listens, and music video that was concurrently released and depicts Grande as the President of the United States, just a few weeks prior to the U.S. presidential election.
“Positions” represented a slick, rhythmic change-up for Grande — and the fanfare around the release ensured a record-extending start at No. 1 on the Hot 100, with 35.3 million U.S. streams and 34,000 downloads in its first week of release, according to Nielsen Music/MRC Data.
5. She’s continued to evolve, while keeping her singles quality high.
Listening to the five Grande singles that have debuted atop the Hot 100 reveals the lack of a clear through-line between them: the self-reflective pop of “Thank U, Next,” opulent trap-and-B of “7 Rings,” doo-wop balladry of “Stuck With U,” house euphoria of “Rain On Me” and sensual rhythms of “Positions” originate from different corners of her artistry. Grande had grown significantly in the seven years following the fluttering pop-R&B of her 2013 debut Yours Truly, but the stylistic leaps she makes between her five No. 1 singles underlines the fearlessness she’s kept as the touchstone of her approach to pop over the past two years.
That daring has proven critically effective, too: Thank U, Next became Grande’s first project to receive an album of the year nod at the Grammys last year, while “7 Rings” was her breakthrough in the record of the year category. Based on the strong showing of “Rain On Me” at this year’s MTV Video Music Awards, where it won song of the year, Grande’s collaboration with Gaga could have a big night at the 2021 Grammys, as could “Stuck With U” alongside Bieber (Positions, and its title track, have to be penciled in as contenders for the 2022 Grammys ceremony, having missed the 2021 eligibility period).
As Grande has vaulted into the upper echelon of pop superstars, her No. 1 debuts on the Hot 100 encapsulate how her critical and commercial appeal keeps soaring higher. Everybody loves what she’s doing right now, and as her apex continues, so may her record of Hot 100-topping debuts.