Hearing the name “Teyana Taylor” will ring a bell in most pop-culture savvy minds. You may be remembering the fly girl from Harlem who starred in one of the most memorable episodes of MTV’s “My Super Sweet Sixteen.” Or, if you’re a fan of fashion, she may be familiar for having designed a pair of sneakers that currently holds the record for fastest-selling Adidas Originals in history. Into movies or TV? She’s starred in the Stomp The Yard sequel, as well as the show House of Glam. Fan of Kanye, Jay Z, or Cam’ron? She’s been featured or done music videos with all of them. At just 16, Taylor released her commercial debut single “Google Me,” in which she foreshadowed the celebrity-driven nature of her burgeoning career with the lyric, “You ain’t even gotta ask nobody about me/ I’m certified on the Internet, read about it.”
If you were to take her advice and Google her, you’d see a lot of the above, layered with the occasional “scandal” like Twitter feuds with Rihanna and the like. You’ll find the story of her career, which often begins with her stepping into a recording studio for the first time at the age of seven, that time that Kanye invited her to hear “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family” (she hummed while he played the tracks to get his attention, eventually landing vocal parts on two of the album’s songs), drama over being released from her record deal with Pharrell’s Star Trak Entertainment and Interscope records, etc.
However, this week especially, most Taylor news will revolve around Tuesday’s release of her debut studio album, VII. After years of releasing mixtapes like The Misunderstanding of Teyana Taylor or being featured in songs for A-list artists, Taylor finally found the freedom and space she’s searched most her life for in order to release an album that is truly hers, clear of fingerprints from big label execs and the like. We chatted on the phone with R&B’s It Girl in order to understand the true Teyana Taylor, now that she’s ready for her work to speak more loudly than the tabloid-like fame.
A lot of your work has consisted of features on other artists’ tracks or music videos. How is this album different than what the world has already heard from you?
It’s definitely different than everything else that I’ve done because everything else that I’ve done has been hip-hop for other people. But now I’m more of an R&B, soul kind of artist. So it was great to be able to really express myself and have that creative space to do so.
How do you think R&B differs in 2014 than, say, in the 90s?
Now R&B is more of a club banger kind of R&B, and I kind of wanted to take it back to that sexy, vintage R&B.
Why did you want to head in that direction musically?
I feel like it’s what we need because our industry is filled with club banger. You gotta love club bangers, but it’s time to balance out all these dope club banger records and show the world that our generation can be versatile and give a little bit of both.
Honestly, that’s just the kind of music that I love and the kind of music that I do. And I always feel like…that kind of music is important and it needs to be heard because I feel like people miss it, you know? And people express that they miss it. So on top of them missing it and me already loving it and listening myself, you know, why not bring it to life?
You’ve worked with some of the industry’s finest, like Kanye West. How has your relationship with him affected your art and this album?
I definitely would say that I learned perfection. He’s such a hard worker and he’s so focused and so hands-on with whatever he’s passionate about, whatever he believes in. And me believing in myself and me believing in my album, I kind of chose to go that route to be very hands on and make sure everything is perfect.
I read before that you’re a bit of a perfectionist and don’t let anyone hear your tracks until they’re absolutely ready.
It was like, a do or die kind of moment. Come hard or don’t come at all, you know? So it was definitely one of those moments where I felt like, I’m not going to put out anything unless it’s perfect.
After leaving your first record deal and signing a joint venture with Kanye’s GOOD Music and The Island Def Jam Music Group, do you feel like you’ve reached a place of artistic freedom? That felt amazing to not have so many hands in the cookie jar. Because that’s what happened with my first deal. There were so many hands in the cookie jar. And the moment the cookie jar fell over and broke into pieces, everyone was like scattered roaches. So now, being able to really have that creative space and control to bring your vision alive, definitely, it means a lot. And not having so many hands. Because you have different hands, different feelings, different emotions, and it’s too much and you don’t know which way to go if one person is pulling you this way and another person is pulling you that way…it’s definitely a lot. It’s definitely overwhelming.
Didn’t you work for a short time as an independent artist?
By the time I had finally gotten my release that I asked for from my first deal, we were already in talks with Kanye. Because after I did “Dark Fantasy,” he was like, “Man, what’s your situation?” And I was like, “Man, I’m currently ready to go independent and get this release from my label.” So in the midst of that, everything just kind of happened so fast. And you know, I’m not going to front. I really did think that I was going to be an independent artist but I feel like, you know, God had another plan for me. Because just when I was going to be independent is when I received an email from Ye telling me to come listen to his album. So, I was like, clearly this means something.
Even though you were calling all the shots, you still had a few artists come in and collaborate. What do you think fans should be most excited for?
I know people are very excited that after seven years, I’m finally giving them a full body of work. I think that’s the most important. Everyone that I worked with was absolutely amazing, but I tried to keep the features limited because I didn’t want to have a feature-filled album. I didn't want to play it safe and get a whole bunch of features. So, getting Chris Brown on “Do Not Disturb” was perfect. Getting Fabolous on “Broken Hearted Girl” was perfect. And definitely getting Pusha T and Yo Gotti was perfect. That was definitely enough for me.
After working for so long, what does it feel like for you to be putting out your first studio album?
It’s definitely an amazing feeling. It’s definitely emotional as well because all your hard work is paying off. Like I always say, I never care about the whole, you know, the first week of sales. I’m not into all that, because sales is never going to validate how great an album is. I just want my music to be heard and for people to enjoy my music. You can hear from word of mouth how great it is and then you can go and cop my album.
When you envision your fans listening to the new music, where do you see them?
It’s a soothing, relaxing album. You can be in a bubble bath, you can be cleaning up. You know, you get that music that’s like, I wanna take a nap but I can’t sleep without listening to music. There’s definitely that sexy, slow, no up-tempo thing going. You can listen in your car, you can listen everywhere.
You’ve always been a very visual artist. Can we expect any new music videos soon?
Well, I’m trying to figure it out now, trying to see what the fan favorites are so I know what to give the visuals to. I was always an artist that looked at people and I’d like a certain song on their album, and they’d do a video for another song on the album and I’d be like, “NO!” I just wanna get the fans involved and see what they like and, you know, give them what they want.
If you could say anything to your fans directly, what would you tell them?
I hope that my album will inspire my generation and if anything, I would leave with a thank you, because I think all my true fans have been on this journey with me and they’re just as if not more excited than I am. And I thank them for always believing in me and never giving up. So big thank you and I love you, and you guys are on my album credits, so check it out when you cop it.
Mathias Rosenzweig is a writer living in NYC. He's on Twitter.