On December 12, 2011, Grande released her debut single "Put Your Hearts Up," a bubblegum pop song with a vastly different style of music and target demographic than "The Way." Whereas the lyrics in "The Way" deal with the subject of a flirty, romantic relationship, some sections with sexual implications, "Put Your Hearts Up" was a song aimed at young audiences, with lyrics about making the world a better place. During a radio interview on KIIS-FM on March 25, 2013 about her debut single, Grande confessed that she had in fact "hated" both the music video for and the song itself, considering it to be "a terrible first impression." She added that she had wanted to "pretend it never happened before it already happened" and that she had felt no enthusiasm to promote the song at the time.
In subsequent interviews, Grande implied that in order to feel "passionate" about her music, it needed to relate to her maturing personality. In an interview with Billboard she said, "When I do Sam & Cat, and when I act as Cat, of course I'm still going to be there for my younger fans. But I'm also growing up – I'm almost 20. I'm not going to do anything crazy, but I want to do music that I'm passionate about. I'm finally at an age where I can do the music that I grew up loving, which was urban pop, 90s music. I grew up listening to the divas, so I'm very happy to finally do urban pop. I hope that it's received well, and it has been so far." 
"The Way" can be seen as the reboot of Grande's singing career, steering her toward an older demographic and a different musical genre than where she originally began. In January 2013, she met with producer Harmony Samuels, at which point he presented her with a demo of the song that featured the vocals of co-writer Jordin Sparks, whom the song was originally intended. The beat he'd created for the single, samples Brenda Russell's "A Little Bit of Love" either directly or indirectly, via Big Pun's "Still Not a Player". Grande immediately connected with the sound and asked Mac Miller to feature on the song with her, to which he responded, "Sounds like a hit to me."  The song was recorded that same month, and caught the attention of Republic Records VP Charlie Walk when he heard it being played from Republic co-founder Monte Lipman's office. "It was 8:00 one night, and I heard a song coming from Monte's office through my wall. He called me down and I played a video, a DIY of Ariana Grande. We heard the song and I immediately made the decision to set it up [and] put the song out."