Photos by Miyako Bellizzi
The first time I met Tink, the versatile Chicago singer and rapper, she was still a junior in high school whose music career consisted of one precociously written mixtape recorded in her basement and a plucky music video called “Fingers Up”—as well as a growing set of record deal offers. She had never done an interview, but she was already preternaturally composed. On a trip through New York last month, now as one of the most buzzed-about names in pop music, she was even more self-assured and thoughtful, to the point that you probably wouldn’t assume she’s still only 19.
Basically, Tink has the bearing of a star, which is convenient considering that she’s well on her way to becoming one. During the last two years, over a series of mixtapes and one-off collaborations, including this year’s excellent Winter’s Diary 2, she’s both expanded and clarified her sound, showing her chops as a clever, dexterous rapper, a silky smooth singer, and an uncommonly subtle and emotive songwriter. She’s embraced the Chicago drill scene through collaborations with artists like Lil Herb and Lil Durk and interacted with more experimental corners of the electronic music world in releases with artists like Future Brown and Kelela.
She’s also edging into the pop mainstream: This past spring, a collaboration with Jeremih called “Don’t Tell Nobody” caught the ear of Timbaland, who soon flew her out to LA to work. He has since taken her under his wing, saying, as Tink explains, that he “sees the light in me in a similar way he saw the light in Missy [Elliott], as well as Aaliyah.” To be the artist who’s inspiring Timbaland is a good thing. Even better, Tink is in the enviable position right now of not only appealing to a wide swath of fans but of facing almost no obligations to anyone. She has yet to sign any kind of record deal, and she’s in no hurry at the moment to release a new full-length project.
During Tink’s recent New York visit, there was a clear feeling that she’s on the cusp of something huge. Yet it was also exciting to see her so excited—about the new music she’s been working on, about the places she’s gotten to visit, about an imminent move to Atlanta, and about the fact that her photo shoot with VICE was the first proper photo shoot she’d done in New York. We sat down after that shoot to talk about working with Timbaland, becoming a role model, and why her music is the remedy for “Loyal.”
Noisey: What has it been like being in the studio with Timbaland? What kind of stuff have you guys been working on?
Tink: It’s almost like a motivator. Being in the studio with Timbaland, it makes me just want to be better. Timbaland, he’s worked with the greats. His energy—I feed off of it. Some producers, when you get in the studio you just vibe. When you’re in the studio with Timbaland, you really bring your A game because he puts his all into his sound, just recreating himself. And that’s why I feel like I need to go even harder. So everything that we’ve created so far, words can’t describe. It’s fresh. That’s the perfect word.
Has your music evolved thematically at all since you’ve started working with him?
Yeah, of course. I have to send messages through my music now. I don’t want to just be saying anything. I want to be able to say something that has meaning, basically. In the game, especially with female artists, we’re missing music that means something, that has a deeper message than just ‘turn up in the club.’ When I’m in the studio with Timbaland, we’re putting emotion into it.
Do you feel yourself becoming more of a role model the longer you’ve been making music and the more that you get exposure?
Yeah. I can honestly say I didn’t really feel it at first when people would tell me like, ‘little girls listen to you and they just love you so much.’ I didn’t feel it until people would tell me on Twitter or whatever like ‘your music helped me get through a breakup’ or ‘I’ve been going through so much and I’m only still standing because I play your music.’ I think now that I’m kind of tapping into my true artistry, putting myself in the music, it’s kind of like wow, as a person, people are looking at my music for me rather than just a turn up song. Anybody can do that. They’re looking up to my music because it’s touching them. I do feel like a role model, honestly. In the game today, there are not too many artists who can touch you with music that you can relate to, especially for my age group. I’m 19. So, from, say, ages 12 to 22, they feed off of me, and I feed off of them because we go through the same things.
Are there specific stories or any experiences you’ve had that were like ‘I need to go deeper into this to make it come out more in my music’?
Of course. I like to keep it raw. I don’t really like sugarcoating my music anymore because I notice that the songs where I’m telling, like, detail for detail, those are the songs that people fall in love with because it’s realistic.
I have a joint I dropped on my second mixtape, Alter Ego. It’s called “She Loves Him,” and I’m explaining that I was in a relationship and my boyfriend cheated on me with one of my friends. So I explained it detail for detail… People actually love it because it’s really what’s going on. Also, “Don’t Tell Nobody”: Even though it’s an upbeat song or whatever, you still get what happens in everyday life. Like when a guy cuts his phone off or he says he couldn’t call you because he was doing something, that’s something that happens everyday. You can’t say ‘I’ve never been in a situation like that.’ It’s relatable, it’s not overprocessed, and it’s real. And that’s why putting my situations in the music is working for me. People can’t deny what they feel.
When you first started rapping, a lot of what you would rap about was stuff like selling cocaine, which is kind of what rappers are supposed to talk about, but I didn’t feel like it was really true to you.
That’s my point. That even justifies what I was saying. Music, to me, is deeper now. I’m not just doing it to say that I rap. I want to stand on my music and be able to play it ten years from now and be like ‘yeah, that’s what I did. That’s what I put together.’
Do you feel pressured in Chicago to stick to more of that drill sound?
Actually, now, no. I feel like my city, they accept me, and that’s what I love about the music now. At first I was doing it because that’s what everybody was [doing]. Everybody was talking about drilling and killing and cocaine. That’s what rappers were doing. Now that they really understand who I am as a person, they accept it, and that’s great to me. There are not many rappers that can do that.
At the end of the day, when I did those songs with Herb and Bibby, you’ve got to remember that I am from Chicago. I’m gonna rock with my city regardless. It’s in order for me to work with Herb, Bibby, Sasha Go Hard, whoever. But my projects and songs that I’m making and creating now [about] my problems and my issues, I kind of put them on a different scale now. It’s crazy because Tink is an artist that—I can reach the hitters, too. More and more I’m noticing that guys play Tink, too, even the emotional songs. You can’t deny real music. It doesn’t have to be ‘I’m gonna shoot you in your face’ for people to like it.
How did the Jeremih collaboration happen?
I was in LA with [production duo] Da Internz, and they played me a song with Jeremih on the hook. And I was thinking like, ‘this song, it has to be flipped.’ We had to put a concept to it because Jeremih had laid the hook on it already. So, when I went in, I already knew what I had to talk about. I had to flip the script on him. So that’s why I’m like ‘I’ve got to say everything a man wouldn’t want his girl to tell.’ It kind of just flowed, and the next day he came in and dropped the bridge. The thought process was there. Once I heard his hook, I’m like ‘yeah I’ve got to tell him.’ So, it was easy: I’m going to tell it all.
That’s interesting, since in rap there is this traditional thing of having a female artist as the complement to the male artist, where she’s going to be the one singing the hook and going along with the idea.
Andthat’s why I think “Don’t Tell Nobody” is a powerful song. It may sound like a nice R&B/rap track, but, at the end of the day, it’s powerful. If you really tune into the message behind the song, it’s deep. I think that’s why people are latching onto it now. Because females, everybody points the finger at us—[sings Chris Brown] “these hoes ain’t loyal”—but we don’t have the opinion from the female. And “Don’t Tell Nobody” is that anthem where we get our voice. It’s not us; it’s you.
Do you feel a duty or pressure to respond to music like that?
I feel a duty for that. Like I said, I’m that voice. I want to be able to give that respect because it doesn’t happen. Teenagers and women, young girls… they receive it so well because we don’t have that. You can’t put on a record that’s empowering us, and that’s what I want to bring. The game is so sugarcoated, and it’s almost a male-dominated game to the point that I do have a responsibility. I’ve got to speak up for us.
Have there been specific instances that you’ve encountered career wise where you’ve been like ‘if I were a guy, this wouldn’t be happening to me’?
That’s an automatic yeah. I think the game is set up where it’s easier for a guy to be heard. I think, [as] females, we have to go 30 times harder just to get that respect. Also, we’re always stereotyped about how we’re supposed to look. I hate to put it like that, but a male rapper can look like nothing and people will still accept him. But, as for a female, I guess you’ve got have this certain look, like you’ve got a big booty or you’re light skinned. It’s almost like they want us females to look one type of way. As for the males, people don’t really care. They care, but the males can pull off anything. Like I said, it’s a male-dominated culture.
Do you see yourself primarily as a rapper?
I get that question a lot. I think my style now is rap&B. A lot of artists do rap&B. If you listen to music now, a lot of male artists are almost singing.
Yeah, you look at Future, Young Thug—
Chance the Rapper, exactly. We don’t look at them as ‘he’s a singer.‘ He’s still considered a rapper.
Do you think that’s a gendered thing where people are like ‘she’s a girl, so she has to be a singer’?
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. It’s those invisible lines. You listen to those artists who kind of do the melody thing. We don’t look at them as R&B. He’s still a rapper. People of course try to draw the line because I’m a girl, and that’s the stereotypical thing—she’s an R&B singer. But no, I still feel like it’s rap&B. It’s rapping, R&B, whatever you want to call it.
The last time I talked to you, you were about to go into your senior year of high school. What was it like being a senior in high school and having your music career blow up?
Man, I’ll be honest. My senior year wasn’t nothing nice. I don’t want to say it wasn’t nothing nice, but it was just too much for the kids to handle. I kind of stayed to myself.
It wasn’t even a mean thing. I guess my senior year they felt like I thought I was all that. Little petty things, because I just stuck to my two best friends, so I guess they felt like—It’s just petty stuff. I can’t even go into details about that senior year. I made it through. I got a diploma.
What have your friends thought of your music since then? Have you been able to stay in touch with them as you’ve traveled all over the place?
I keep in touch with my friends because they keep me grounded. I never want my head to be bigger than what I am. Being around my friends, they keep me real. I still can relate to everybody. I always tell them to talk to me, I still want to know about what’s going on in their life because I feed off of their stories.
Do you draw on that stuff when you’re writing songs?
All the time. I like to look at other things for inspiration. That’s why I tell them to talk to me about whatever so I can just feel that, put myself in [their] shoes. That helps me in the studio. There are times where I’m not going through a heartbreak situation. My best friend will be like ‘girl, listen. This is what he just did to me.’ And I’m like ‘I’m going to say something about it.’
Are there any situations like that where you’ve pulled something from someone else’s life and they’ve gotten mad at it?
Nah, they never get mad. If anything they’ll be like ‘high five, that was hot.’ Never mad. I’d never go in on them. It’s always in a positive light. I’m on their side.
What about the guys on the other side of the relationship?
I always get a couple texts that are like ‘what’s [with] that line.’ I’m like ‘it’s just music.’ That’s my excuse. It’s art. They give me a lot of trouble.
What are the long term goals for Tink?
The music is going to be here, and it’s going to get bigger. I want to be able to tour and hit those cities outside of America. I think once I’m able to tap into other countries—I just want my music to be heard everywhere. I think the message behind the music is worldwide. It can be felt by anybody, any race. I don’t want to just be limited. In three to five years, I want to be on tour, selling out arenas, just having a personal, conversational onstage with millions of people. Like I said, real music is hard to kill—it’s hard to die. You’ve got some people who can make a good song to turn up to, but real music, it will never fade.
Kyle Kramer can neither rap nor sing, but he does share Tink's appreciation for Aaliyah. He's on Twitter - @KyleKramer
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