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From Billboard Breakout to Grammy Contender, Tori Kelly’s Had a Hell of a Year

Mireya Acierto, Getty Images
Mireya Acierto, Getty Images

By Monday night, 23-year-old Tori Kelly might be in possession of her very first Grammy. But only a year ago, she was a relative unknown whose audiences were rooted mainly in YouTube subscriptions.

Kelly, who auditioned for American Idol‘s ninth season as a teenager in 2010, was cut from the show just before the its live semi-finals after some particularly harsh criticism from judge Simon Cowell. While the rejection hit Kelly hard, she told Ryan Seacrest last year it incited her to buckle down on her craft and prove her worth as a musician.

“I was bummed when I got cut, of course,” she said. “But then it was kind of awesome because, I think, by getting cut from the show, something stirred up in me to want to write.”

And that’s precisely what she did. In 2012, after releasing six-track EP Handmade Songs By Tori Kelly that Kelly, herself, produced in her bedroom, the singer caught Scooter Braun’s eye, and found herself under Capitol Records’ management within the year. A second EP, Foreword, continued to cultivate a fan base, and demonstrated her appeal as a complete, wild-maned package.

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It was 2015, though, that signaled Kelly’s rise into official breakthrough artist territory. At the 2015 Billboard Music Awards, and armed with only an acoustic guitar, she tore through “Nobody Love,” her debut album’s first single, and delivered what was generally considered to be the show’s most striking performance. Unbreakable Smile‘s release a month later was proof of the broadcast’s power — the LP debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and “Nobody Love,” which peaked inside Billboard’s Top 20, was certified gold. By pairing an enduring singer-songwriter sound with more explosive tracks like “Expensive,” Kelly honored her most devoted fans while opening herself up to a more mainstream audience.

“Should’ve Been Us,” released next, also went gold.

As pop began to embrace Kelly’s relaxed attitude and penchant for producing radio-worthy hits, she reminded everyone with a tribute to Smokey Robinson at the 2015 BET Awards that she was, at her core, a soul artist. Fans — old and new — went wild on Twitter after her rendition of “Who’s Lovin You.” Even Snoop Dogg, who watched the show from home, couldn’t help but cry out in favor of her voice.

This girl can sang !! Wow.

A video posted by snoopdogg (@snoopdogg) on

And, in case anyone hadn’t been officially converted to T.K.-standom by August, Kelly’s electric MTV Video Music Awards performance proved that she was one of the industry’s most formidable and versatile contemporary singers, earning praise from both Pink and Foxes in the process.

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Now, Kelly will square off against Meghan Trainor, James Bay, Courtney Barnett and Sam Hunt for the Grammys’ Best New Artist distinction…and she’s performing. Plus, she’s got a new nationwide tour kicking off April 5.

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“I’m having a hard time processing all of it, but it’s definitely a huge honor,” she told Access Hollywood of her Grammys nomination.

Tori fan? Share your thoughts on her banner year, and be sure to keep up with PopCrush on Grammys night for live coverage — the magic begins with the 6 PM EST pre-show on February 15!

Look back at YouTube and Vine stars who eventually hit it big:

Next: Tori Kelly Joins 'The Voice' Season 10

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