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November 29, 2018 at 01:00 PM EST

Ariana Grande suffered enormous personal hardship in 2018 — and in the spotlight, no less — but she came out singing even sweeter on the other side.

The Sweetener singer’s golden voice has been stuck in our heads for months, not that we’re complaining. One of EW’s Entertainers of the Year, the pop star began her takeover of 2018 in April, with the release of the single “No Tears Left to Cry,” but her total conquest of the zeitgeist was complete once the honeyed album dropped in August.

“For her to release an album, and to do it so effortlessly and successfully — I think it comes down to her being absolutely genuine and connecting with people on a human-to-human level,” says Troye Sivan, with whom Grande collaborated on “Dance to This” back in June. “And then, of course, the music is just really, really, really undeniably good.”

But that’s nothing new for Grande. “You can go back and listen to her entire catalog and there’s always been a perspective,” Sivan says. “You can hear that she’s insanely talented, obviously, and I think you can hear that she’s kind of a music nerd — the vocal production, the harmonies. She’s made everything feel really purposeful and interesting.”

Grande and Sivan first met backstage at the 2016 Billboard Music Awards and became fast friends, sharing that “music nerd” sensibility. “I just trust her taste and admire her taste. So when I sent her [‘Dance to This’] I was really nervous,” Sivan admits. “For me, vocally, she was 100 percent the right person for that song. I care about what she thinks, just on a personal level, so I’m really honored that someone I that admire as much as I admire her was down to get on my song and put so much behind it.”

Grande’s particular magic, though, comes from applying that talent and taste while having something real to say. “Girl pop singers tend to be idolized by the gay community. We’ve got Cher, Madonna, Gaga. And Ariana has become that, all while conveying a real understanding of what that means,” Sivan says. “When I listen to a song like ‘No Tears Left to Cry,’ there’s an underlying tide about letting your true color shine through. And that’s always been there in her work.”

Grande made headlines with more than just her artistry this year, however. After her two-year relationship with rapper Mac Miller ended in May, the singer entered a whirlwind romance with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, becoming engaged to the comedian in June (and recording an interlude named after him for Sweetener).

But autumn brought heartbreak: In September, Miller died of an accidental drug overdose. Grande, who was on good terms with the rapper following their split, was compelled to disable commenting on her Instagram when she was bombarded by trolls blaming her for Miller’s death. Posting a video of her ex in happier times, she shared the message, “i adored you from the day i met you when i was nineteen and i always will.i can’t believe you aren’t here anymore.” Calling Miller “the kindest, sweetest soul with demons he never deserved,” she bid him farewell: “i hope you’re okay now. rest.”

After that loss came another, as she and Davidson called off their engagement in October. But if there’s anything Grande understands, it’s how to sweeten a sad situation. In early November, she delivered a surprise in the form of the single “Thank U, Next,” in which she expresses her gratitude for Miller (“he was an angel”) and Davidson (“for Pete I’m so thankful”), as well as her other exes, for how they’ve shaped her.

“I went by the studio and she was playing me [Sweetener], and I remember freaking out,” Sivan recalls. “But honestly, the time I freaked out the most was when she played ‘Thank U, Next.’ I was like, ‘This is your biggest song ever.’”

He was right — the heartfelt track has since become Grande’s first No. 1 single, and the music video teases alone (featuring Sivan, among others) have fans buzzing for more. Most impressive of all, though, has to be singer’s resilience.

“To go through all of the things she’s gone through, while also being watched by the entire world, I don’t know how anyone could do that,” Sivan says of his friend. “And then not only does she get through it and survive, but she turns it into something beautiful, that inspires so many people. I don’t know if that’s her way of sifting through everything that’s going on in her life or what, but whatever it is, it’s working.”

Sivan adds, “I can’t think of any other artist out right now who is putting their heart out on their sleeve in the same way. She is on such a humongous stage. It’s brave and it’s strong and I have endless respect.”

—With reporting by Alex Suskind

For more on Ariana Grande and Entertainment Weekly‘s 2018 Entertainers of the Year, pick up the new issue when it hits stands on Friday, or buy all four covers now. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

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