A single spotlight illuminates an otherwise pitch-black stage. As the camera zooms in, shadows transform into a vision in red. Donning a glittery red evening gown and sporting her instantly signature half-up half-down hairdo, Ariana Grande’s meticulously manicured fingers cradle a Shure 55S microphone stand.
She opens her debut American Music Awards performance on Nov. 24, 2013 with a fluttery a cappella rendition of the chorus of “The Way,” the lead single from Yours Truly, her debut studio album. After a flurry of rapid-fire riffs from the joint school of Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera, Grande launches into “Tattooed Heart,” a Truly deep cut. By the end of the night, which included a win for new artist of the year, the doo-wop ballad would become the crux of the defining performance of the Yours Truly era, as well as the soundtrack for Grande’s very own A Star Is Born moment.
Three months earlier, on Aug. 30, 2013, Ariana Grande properly introduced herself to the world with her debut album, a 46-minute fusion of doo-wop, ‘90s hip-hop and R&B, dance-pop, and musical theatre. Yours Truly debuted atop the Billboard 200 with 138,000 copies sold in its first week, surpassing initial predictions of 110,000-120,000 copies. Grande became just the 15th female artist in Billboard history to debut atop the Billboard 200 with her first album.
In the 10 years since then, Grande has moved 19.4 million album units in the U.S. and garnered over 23.6 billion streams across lead artist credits, according to Luminate. Yours Truly has sold 650,000 pure copies and earned 2 million equivalent album units. The album’s songs collectively have earned over 1.65 billion on-demand streams in the U.S. This Friday (Aug. 25), Grande released a deluxe digital version of the debut set, featuring additional live versions of six of its tracks, with more commemorative festivities planned for the album’s anniversary throughout the week to come.
As her first formal artistic statement outside of her role as the lovably ditzy Cat Valentine on Nickelodeon’s Victorious and Sam & Cat, Yours Truly, and its resounding commercial and artistic success, immediately announced Grande as not just a successful young actress-turned-singer, but also a certifiable Top 40 force, sitting alongside the likes of other 2013 Billboard 200 chart-toppers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry. “Seeing [“The Way”] sitting up there with those songs from ‘established’ artists, to see her do that and then she just kept putting them out,” reflects “The Way” co-writer Jordin Sparks, a hitmaker, Grammy nominee and American Idol winner in her own right. “I feel like that was such a breath of fresh air, to see a new artist break and [for] them to be amazing.”
Written by Sparks, Harmony Samuels, A-Rod and Sevyn Streeter, “The Way” is where it all began for Grande — and where everything changed. “The Way,” a bubbly homage to Mariah Carey’s most perfectly balanced R&B/rap collaborations, arrived on March 25, 2013, along with a rap verse from the late Mac Miller, and a playful, balloon-laden, Jones Crow-helmed music video that arrived three days later.
Sparks wrote the song about a relationship she was in at the time, working with a track produced by Grammy-nominee Harmony Samuels. “I know that I had said I wanted to do a ‘90s R&B throwback kind of feel,” Sparks says. “I remember us jamming to a few songs” — including Big Pun and Joe’s “Still Not a Player,” whose lift of Brenda Russell’s “A Little Bit of Love” provides the backbone of “The Way.” (Miller even quotes parts of Big Pun’s 1998 hit in his verse.) The song’s allegiance to the magic of ‘90s R&B and hip-hop collaborations made it an easy triumph, earning all credited writers a BMI Pop Award. “You know when you get with a group of people and everybody’s on the same page?” Sparks muses. “That’s what it felt like writing [“The Way”].”
“The Way” was originally written for Sparks’ own album, but from what she has heard, “Somebody played [the song] for [Grande], and she just fell in love with it… She put her vocals on it, she got Mac [Miller] to get on it, she shot the video, that girl was so proactive!” Once Sparks eventually heard Grande’s version of the song, she remembers thinking to herself, “I’m just so grateful somebody who can sing and actually interpret the lyrics is singing this.”
Harmony Samuels, a Grammy-nominated producer who worked on five Yours Truly tracks, notes that “The Way” had existed for about a year before Grande got a hold of it. He recalls Grande’s label tapping him to work on her album after being impressed by his work with Kelly Rowland around the same time. He had initially written “The Way” with the intention of building on Mariah Carey’s legacy — “We hadn’t had a big voice on radio in a minute,” he says — so he intentionally chose Sparks to write the song for. His recollection of events lines up with Sparks’: Grande heard the song in a studio session, fell in love with it, and the rest was history. “One thing I love about Ariana Grande,” he gushes, “she knows what she wants.”
Just as the song helped Grande and Miller garner Top 40 legitimacy, Sparks also reaped meaningful benefits from the song. “[The success of “The Way”] opened me up to be able to have more opportunities to be able to write more, and for people to take my pen seriously,” says Sparks. “I’m really, really grateful.”
“The Way” may have been Yours Truly’s lead single, but its most important role was course-correcting the impact of “Put Your Hearts Up,” the purposely neglected bubblegum pop bop that technically served as Grande’s debut solo single. Grande quickly, and understandably, buried “Hearts” before formally launching her album campaign with “The Way,” a comparatively more mature track that widened her potential audience from her pre-existing Nickelodeon fans to teens and young adults. Add that Big Pun reference and Grande’s flashy vocals, and her music was suddenly of interest to the parents of those kids and teens as well. “We were able to give a very authentic, mature album without losing the essence of her youth,” says Samuels. (He also notes that while her label “wasn’t too keen” on “The Way” as a lead single, she pushed for it anyway, foreshadowing a similar situation during her Positions era seven years later.)
“The Way” absolutely delivered on its course correction attempts: While “Hearts” never touched the Billboard Hot 100, its follow-up debuted at No. 10, eventually peaking at No. 9 ten weeks later. The song’s success was proof that Grande’s hard work and dedication had amounted to something fantastic. “She’s a hardworking girl,” remembers Samuels. “She would leave set after a 12-hour day at work and come to the studio and cut records. She’d be in the studio for six, seven hours. She inspires you to want to go hard and write better songs.”
While “The Way” is a worthy entry point to the story of Yours Truly, “Honeymoon Avenue” is equally apt. As the song that opens Grande’s first album, “Honeymoon” is a towering moment in her catalog: Stirring strings open the track, soon giving away to layers of staccato hums that cement the album’s heavy doo-wop influence. “‘Honeymoon Avenue’ was originally an up-tempo song,” Grammy-nominated producer Tommy Brown reveals. “We went through a lot of different versions creating it, and then it was given to Leon [Thomas], Babyface and The Rascals, and then they did their thing on it… It was one of the ones.”
Brown, who has since become a key collaborator of Grande’s, “really hit it off” with her at a writing session for Nick Jonas. As he recalls, there wasn’t even an album in mind when the pair crafted their first song together: “Honeymoon Avenue.” “When we originally did it, the production was a little more doo-wop-y — I think as the record progressed over time, it took a more halftime, slower urban route,” he adds. “But it was always the same song.”
Brown and Grande also joined forces for “Daydreamin’,” another doo-wop-indebted track that also briefly served as the album’s title track. “I feel like the production kind of took a turn there,” Brown remembers. “It was like doo-wop-electronic! I worked on that production with Matt Squire… he brought a more electronic vibe and brought a more classic soulful vibe.” Brown would go on to work with Grande on each of her six studio albums, but Yours Truly marked the first Billboard 200-topper for both artists. “Now there’s a wall of about 30 of them out there,” Brown says. “And I’m happy that that [Yours Truly] is the first one that started the journey.”
Grande’s incorporation of doo-wop on Yours Truly was instrumental to the album’s success and became the bedrock of her early sonic profile. While she debuted at a time when more established pop stars were flirting with doo-wop influences, Grande’s specific stylings set her at the forefront of her class. “This isn’t something that just figured itself out,” says Samuels. “She’s intentional. Everything is intentional, she has it planned.” He recalls Grande spearheading the merging of the two styles based on her studio sessions with other key Yours Truly producers like Babyface and The Rascals. In addition to merging whimsical ‘50s pop with seemingly disparate styles, Grande echoed those fusions in her styling for the Yours Truly album campaign, with her then-trademark look (a small crop top, a large floral skirt, sky-high pumps, and the half-up half-down ponytail) merging contemporary styles with hallmarks of 1950s women’s fashion.
“Daydreamin’,” along with “Honeymoon Avenue” and “Tattooed Heart” are the most obvious doo-wop moments on Yours Truly — but even more ‘90s R&B-indebted tracks like “Piano” and “Baby I” take pointers from the tight harmonies of the ‘50s pop style. Grande’s style of big-voiced doo-wop-influenced pop even inspired several artists to recreate and capitalize on her and her collaborators’ innovations — most notably Meghan Trainor, who released her doo-wop-indebted Title album in 2014 and guested on Charlie Puth’s “Marvin Gaye” the same year. Grande herself would draw on Yours Truly’s doo-wop foundation for later tracks like “Moonlight” (Dangerous Woman, 2016), “Raindrops” and “R.E.M.” (Sweetener, 2018), and “Imagine” (Thank U, Next, 2019).
Ten years later, it is quite incredible how clear the throughline is from “The Way” to the version of Grande that is currently celebrating Yours Truly’s decade anniversary. The R&B/pop template she established with “The Way” echoes across her discography — most notably in 2020’s Positions — and the song also became the first of three official collaborations with Miller, who she dated and remained close friends with until his untimely passing in 2018. Another former beau, Big Sean, appears on “Right There,” which helped fulfill plans for “The Way” from before the song even got to Grande. (“I really wanted to get Big Sean on the [“The Way”],” Sparks recalls. “I thought he would fit perfectly.”)
Meanwhile, the Nathan Sykes-assisted blue-eyed-soul ballad “Almost Is Never Enough” paved the way for future Grande collabs – particularly her four duets with The Weeknd. The EDM bent of 2014’s smash hit “Break Free” can be heard on “Better Left Unsaid,” and hip-hop’s influence on the album permeates the rest of her discography. And, of course, “Honeymoon Avenue” was the first of countless collaborations between Grande, Brown and Victoria Monét, the start of a partnership that has earned several Hot 100 No. 1 hits and Grammy nominations. “The process of watching her work and working with artists who know what they want is A1,” says Brown. “I always felt like she knew what she wanted.”
The final guest artist on Yours Truly, Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter MIKA, appears on the album’s most directly prophetic song: “Popular Song.” Featuring a writing credit from Priscilla Renea (a.k.a. Muni Long, of “Hrs & Hrs” fame), “Popular Song” interpolates “Popular,” from the musical Wicked, the film version of which Grande is currently wrapping up. She will star as Glinda the Good Witch in the two-part film, the same character (originated by Tony winner Kristin Chenoweth, one of Grande’s mentors), who sings “Popular” in the Broadway musical. Given Grande’s Broadway roots — she launched her career with the 2008 Broadway musical 13 — the musical theatre bent of Yours Truly is unsurprising, and it courses through the rest of her discography, from 2016’s Jason Robert Brown-assisted “Jason’s Song” to the theatricality of 2019’s “Fake Smile.”
Ten years removed from its debut, Yours Truly stands as a terrific body of work. The work of an artist with a sharp vision and even stronger resolve, Ariana Grande’s debut album marked the arrival both of one of music’s most successful pop stars and a new era of pop stars (Sam Smith, Tori Kelly) marketed on the strength of their voices and their ability to traverse pop, R&B and hip-hop. Many of the album’s key players — Tommy Brown, Muni Long, Mac Miller, Victoria Monét, Leon Thomas III, etc. — all went on to reach even greater critical and commercial heights in the years following Yours Truly. “I’m just happy to be invited to the party,” says Brown. Samuels adds, “I’m so proud of all [her] achievements and growth,” Samuels adds. “The vision was to always have someone who could be in that space and create that kind of energy and she’s done exactly that.
With each subsequent album, Grande continues to call back to Yours Truly — a testament to both the enduring quality of the record and how perfectly she was able to capture the essence of her artistry at the start of her ten-year journey toward becoming a Grammy-winning, record-obliterating modern pop icon. “I think I kind of knew in my gut that she was going to be massive,” Sparks says. “I just knew.”