When Ariana Grande’s first album, “Yours Truly,” started at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 last September, the 20-year-old singer became just the 15th female solo artist to guide their first full-length to a No. 1 debut on the albums chart. Grande tells Billboard that she celebrated that accomplishment for approximately one hour after it happened, and then began thinking about her next album.
“I’m a workaholic, and a perfectionist,” says Grande, who released “Problem,” the first single from her as-yet-untitled second album, on Sunday night (Apr. 27) after performing the Iggy Azalea-assisted track for the first time at the Radio Disney Music Awards. “It was a very exciting thing for me to all of a sudden have this new mission, to make something as special as ‘Yours Truly,’ and to put my time and effort into something new and something I want to make just as good, if not better.”
Grande believes that she hit that mark with her sophomore effort, due out in August or September: “I never thought I’d be able to say this, but I love this [album] five times as much as I love ‘Yours Truly.’ They’re different, but I love this one so much more.”
Co-written by Max Martin and Savan Kotecha, “Problem” employs a saxophone sample that immediately recalls recent hits like Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Thrift Shop” and Jason Derulo’s “Talk Dirty,” but the boisterous track also unchains Grande’s incredible voice, which spews out insecurities over an ex-flame with an anxious rapidity before hitting home on the high notes. Grande says that she originally didn’t want “Problem” to appear on her sophomore album, and after playing the song in a meeting with her label and management, she realized that she had another hit on her hands.
“‘Problem’ truly represents the feeling of being absolutely terrified to re-approach a relationship that’s gone sour — but you want to more than anything,” says Grande. The singer also cryptically confirms that the song is based on her still-evolving relationship with an ex: “In the song, it ends on a sappy, negative note, but in [real] life, we’re hoping it’s going to end on a positive one. I feel like it’s all very honest and human.”
After working with hip-hop artists like Mac Miller and Big Sean (who provides those whispered vocals on “Problem”) on “Yours Truly,” Grande decided to strengthen “Problem” with the help of Azalea, whom she met while attending Katy Perry’s MTV EMAs after-party last October. “I was a fan of hers from when she put ‘Work’ out,” says Grande of Azalea’s 2013 single. “I thought she was so sensible and down-to-earth and talented.”
While “Yours Truly” primarily showcased Grande’s powerful voice through new-school R&B songs, the singer says that her follow-up will be more expansive, with a wider list of collaborators. Electronic superstar Zedd worked on a track, which Grande says is “fantastic and super-experimental for me. I never thought I’d do an EDM song, but that was an eye-opening experience, and now all I want to do is dance.”
Martin and Kotecha oversaw “a lot” of the album, while Benny Blanco, Ryan Tedder, Key Wayne and Thomas Brown all contributed to the full-length. Grande says of the legendary producer Rodney Jerkins, “We’ve done a song together that I think is my favorite song that I’ve ever done.”
When “Yours Truly’s” first single, “The Way,” started in the Top 10 of the Hot 100 chart upon its release last year, the song’s debut was seen as a surprise success for a Nickelodeon star who was relatively unknown to mainstream music fans at the time. One year later, pop fans were prepared for “Problem” — daily hashtags like #10DaysUntilProblem were trending worldwide on Twitter for the better part of two weeks prior to the song’s release.
“It warms my heart,” says Grande, who reads her Twitter mentions alongside her mother, crying and laughing at fans’ expressions of enthusiasm. “I feel like all the hard work has paid off, and the reactions make me feel like I’m doing my job right.”