In October 2014, Elle Magazine’s American edition posted a tweet.
It read: “Watch out Beyonce…here comes @Tinashe.” I mean yes, pitting women against each other is lazy, but the point being made here was that Tinashe – who’d just released her debut album Aquarius – was set to blow up. The tweet linked to an article on the Elle site, but if you click on the link now it takes you nowhere. Page not found. Which, in an ironic and frankly depressing way, acts as a bit of a metaphor for how Tinashe’s career hasn’t enjoyed the trajectory it deserves.
Because, let’s be honest, she can sing, dance, write her own music, produce her own beats and transcend genre. Yet it’s been a struggle for the 25-year-old to to reach her full superstar potential. When you zoom out to look at her career trajectory so far, a few issues beyond her control start to stack up. From the time she first teased news of a second album to follow Aquarius, in September 2015, to today’s long-awaited release of that album, Joyride, some combination of her genre-bending blends of pop and R&B didn’t quite manage to pull in the audience that you’d expect for someone with her talent. Throughout, social media has thus played a role in how she’s been able to express some of her frustration with the music industry machine, but that’s in turn shown how sometimes her honesty in interviews – and her willingness to bring her fans into the process – has ended up alienating her further with other listeners. With hit single “2 On” introducing her to us in 2014 and a series of co-signs, collaborations and tours, Tinashe has felt primed for huge success. But Joyride ended up like a labour of love that got caught in a major label tangle. And this is why.
Let’s start with “2 On.” The DJ Mustard-produced Aquarius lead single came became a club and ‘blast-it-out-your-car-windows’ hit in early 2014, all finger-clicking beats and sexually-charged lyrics. It banged, peaking at number 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100 (her highest-charting single to date). The song arrived at a time when FKA twigs and Banks-era R&B was turning darker and more introverted. And so Tinashe took some of those sonic elements and incorporated them into a song that also made you want to get up and dance. This was peak ‘Mustard on the beat’ intro time too, when the producer had also helped newcomer Kid Ink to chart success, and revitalising the sounds of Chris Brown, Omarion and Big Sean.
When first Drake, then Kanye, endorsed Tinashe – Drake, with a Soundcloud reworking of her hit that he called “2 On / Thotful,” and Kanye with an “I really like this vid…” now-deleted tweet in April 2015, linking to Tinashe’s “All Hands on Deck” video – she looked primed for a quick rise to the top. In spite of the co-sign and critical acclaim – a Pitchfork album review considered “All Hands” “the album’s sole answer to ‘2 On’'s club-readiness” – the Stargate and Cashmere Cat-produced track just didn’t catch on as much with the general public. See: it peaking at number 156 on the UK Singles Chart. But Tinashe had already been enlisted to open for Nicki Minaj on “The Pink Print” tour, scored a pop-crossover hit with Nick Jonas featuring on the remix to “Jealous”, was handpicked by her idol Janet Jackson to appear as part of a tribute performance for BET and collaborated with Charli XCX, Ty Dolla $ign and Chance The Rapper. She was booked and busy.
Then, paradoxically, things started to veer off track after she shared a teaser video for Joyride, in the first days of September 2015. The YouTube clip showcased a confident and assured Tinashe with a clear message: “Motherfuckers. I can’t be ignored.” But one of her usual candid interviews showed signs of the industry apparatus that seemed to be holding her back. In a December 2015 Spin interview, she admitted leaking the original Joyride first single, “Party Favors” with Young Jeezy, as a kick up the arse to her label RCA, who she felt weren’t drumming up enough buzz around her new album. “I knew if I didn’t just put something out,” she said, “I ran the risk of continuing to push back my singles and my whole process. I’ve got the songs, I need to put them out, I need people to hear them. I was just like, ‘F**k it. I’m putting it on SoundCloud.’ So that’s what I did.”
Her label struggles extended into implying RCA had been more keen on her working with Chris Brown than she had, on the official first Joyride single, “Player.” Speaking to Entertainment Tonight Canada, Tinashe said: “[Chris Brown] heard the record, he really loved the record and it really was that simple. He popped on the song, and then we had a Chris verse and I was like ‘Okay cool, this is cool’” Then she stopped, cupped her hand around her mouth and stage-whispered: “It was really the label. It wasn’t me.” It’s one of those fascinating moments when you can watch a star in real-time consider whether it’s worth speaking about part of the hidden creative process, doing so, and couching it in “lols”. Add to that a leaked Twitter group DM reportedly between Tinashe and some fans, where the singer allegedly implied that RCA were “focused on zayn lmao that’s the real tea” – in reference to label-mate Zayn Malik and his debut solo single. By the time she told Vulture last week that Joyride’s title track had almost been lifted by Rihanna, and that she’d needed to buy it back, it seemed she’d not been given total control over the creative side of her work.
Her candidness in interviews was also matched by the role social media played in showing how hard this second album turned out to be. When “Player” didn’t take off, Tinashe posted a series of playful Snapchat videos, in one of which she said: “If you don’t have my song, you’re not a real fan. Go get that shit. Right now. Play it everyday!” Her comments were taken as egotistical. In April 2016, she announced on Facebook that she wasn’t completing the European of Australian leg of her Joyride tour. “Originally, I had planned this tour in support of Joyride, and as you know, the album has yet to be released.”
This update-by-way-of-social-media soon became fans’ only way of knowing anything about the album’s status. Obviously this trend goes beyond Tinashe. Artists like Charli XCX, Iggy Azalea and JoJo have all used their social media platforms to lift the veil on how album rollouts can really work from the inside. In her case, Tinashe soon found herself both on the defensive, from fans demanding where Joyride was after being promised it months ago, while also justifying the delay as part of the creative process and having to assure fans that it was indeed coming.
Between July 2016 and March 2017, standalone singles and surprise EP Nightride hinted at more to come. "I had so much stuff built up," she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. Adding, “It's a little convoluted, but I guess I was just attempting to please everyone.” By this January, more than two years since talk of Joyride started, Tinashe teased new music with an Instagram video. Track “No Drama” with Offset dropped next, with a grit that felt like the first time Tinashe had really sounded like herself in years, singing lines like: “Said I'm fallin' off but they won't JFK me / Tried to be myself but they won't AKA me.” She sounded keenly aware of the journey she’s been on so far, and ready to take back some control. Then after the release of follow-up single, “Faded Love” featuring Future, Tinashe finally had a April release date set for the long-awaited album.
And here we are. Joyride is out. It’s dark, sexy and feels like a step in the right direction for the singer. The unlikely pairing with Little Dragon on “Stuck With Me” is a clear standout, while album closer “Fires & Flames” showcases Tinashe’s incredible vocal prowess. That said, the momentum both she and RCA had all those years ago seems to have dissipated and the Joyride’s release feels more like a means to an end than a strategy to propel Tinashe to superstardom. For an artist who we hailed as “the most most multi-faceted star to launch into the mainstream arena,” just three years ago, I can’t help but feel like the industry has failed Tinashe.
But she doesn’t want people to feel sorry for her. “I don’t want people to look at it as I’m a prisoner in my [record] deal because that’s not accurate,” she said in that Vulture interview. And she holds her hands up and accepts some responsibility for the album’s staggered rollout – “I made the mistake of even talking about the project too soon.” Tinashe wants to regain control of her career, which has felt to be in the hands of everyone else but her. But I won’t dwell, it’s not the day for that. All I’m going to say is whatever Tinashe’s next move is, whether a full album campaign, tour or new material, I just hope she’s the one in the driver’s seat.
You can find Yusuf on Twitter.