Tink makes it a habit to journal weekly. If you’ve been following her since 2012’s Winter’s Diary, you’d understand her penchant for turning reflective pages from her past into melodramas. The Chicago-based singer/rapper was barely 16 when she converted the doodles in her notebook into full blown songs, producing an ongoing mixtape series that caught Timbaland’s ear. In the years since the Winter’s Diary series matured, and she did too, sprawling into four installments documenting her growth. It was a coming-of-age saga that captured R&B’s confessional style and married it with punchy rap verses that complemented her candor. In 2017, when Tink’s joint deal with Timbaland’s Mosely Music Group and Epic failed to materialize anything more than a single and the mixtapes she was financially backing, the singer asked to be released from her contract. Now completely indie, the 23-year-old has no restrictions on how she can share her music with the world. Today, Tink is sharing “M.I.A.,” her first visual from the six-track project Pain & Pleasure, released in March.
The world met Tink as a teenager wise beyond her years, and when she reemerged on Instagram last December after a lengthy hiatus from both music and social media, it felt like an evolution. She spouted affirmations in a caption, speaking life over her career that had been controlled for nearly five years at the hands of others. “Your story is yours for a reason!” she wrote. “Only you can dictate the next chapter.” Three months later, she returned to music with Pain & Pleasure, a departure from her Winter’s Diary series. It was the first time she’d been able to express herself without the label’s hand since 2012.
“Those mixtapes gave me room to grow,” she says to me over the phone on a mid-July day. “When you’re that young you’re just trying to figure everything out. Now, I really have a story to tell.”
The truth is, Tink always had a story to tell. She’d been the soundtrack of adolescence, often validating feelings adults can whittle down to insignificance. On “Treat Me Like Somebody” and “I Like,” standouts from WD2 and WD3, she doubles down on the notion that just because she’s young doesn’t mean she’s rushing into relationships prematurely. “In the past I was young, looking for a thrill / That didn’t last long, I was in it for the wrong reason, wrong season, wrong person,” she sang on “Somebody.” Her battle for control of her career adds a layer of depth, and her emancipation only builds on the honesty that came natural to her. On Pain & Pleasure, she’s still detailing the sweet and sour spectrum of relationships, the difference now is the lines between personal and professional are blurred.
“The first thing I wanted to do when I got out of my deal was to put up something for purchase,” she starts. “A lot of my music is just mixtapes and it’s all out for free.” It’s a tough pill to swallow that an artist as versatile as Tink, who has managed to release music every year—with the exception of her 2017 hiatus—has only put out free projects until Pain & Pleasure. “I just wanted to tap into the market and give the fans the music right in their hands.”
Opening the EP is “On to the Next One,” a song that could double as a break up song to her long time mentor, Timbaland. “I waited all of these years / You gave me nothing but tears,” she sings. She sports her velour vocals on cuts like “Get You Home” and “Signs,” a reinvention to R&B’s ode to zodiac signs taken from the pages of Beyonce and Tyrese in the early aughts. She flexes her flow on “Part Time Lover,” a song she wishes were longer that dons a soulful Xscape sample. Tink has never been one to sugarcoat her lyrics, and she certainly isn’t here. “He got a girl, and I got a man / When he ain’t around I’m sneaking him in,” she raps. “I like being direct,” she tells me, her Chicago drawl peeking out. “Sometimes artists will want to say something but they’ll have to find a safe way to say it without pissing people off. Being independent now is the best freedom. I don’t have to walk on eggshells.” It’s one of the few spots where she raps on the EP, but she brings traces of her skill on the partner-in-crime bop, “M.I.A.”
“M.I.A” is warm and tranquil, fitting for the secluded couples vacation Tink seems to have in mind. It feels sunkissed and sandy, but Tink is so lovestruck that she’d rather spend her time couped up in the hotel. They’re indulging in each other, barely leaving the room, and “throwing quiet signs on the door,” as her lyrics suggest. “I’m just kind of singing about being M.I.A. with your boo. You know, going on vacation and getting lost in time,” she says. The video, however, adds a lot more context to what made Tink want to getaway in the first place.
Director Damien Sandoval brought the singer’s vision of being “missing in action” with your significant other to life. “He had the idea of a couple robbing a bank on a Bonnie and Clyde vibe, and we kind of just get lost in Mexico,” she says. The video opens in Chicago, with two police officers surveying the neighborhood with wanted posters looking for Tink and Bart, instead of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde. Filmed in three days, Tink brought in The Chi’s Bart Fitzpatrick as her co-star, who she met at a house party in downtown Chicago seven years ago. “With all that he’s doing on the show, I just wanted to reach out and show love to Chicago,” she says. “You know, just bringing everybody up with me that I can.”
Tink has taken her years in limbo in stride. Over the phone, when speaking about her music she refers to it as a “product” on multiple occasions. I ask if she’s interested in the business side of the industry and her answer is simple: “Hell yes.” Five years ago, she was just happy to have a seat at the table, now she wants to own the table. “I just enjoyed being involved. I let people handle things for me and thought they had my best interest at heart.” she said. “Now I’m 100 percent sure you need to have your hand in both—especially as a female. They don’t really take us serious as business women, but more like a product. When I come to meetings or speak to people I want them to understand, view me as an equal.”
It’s been long overdue that black women have creative control over their narratives. We saw it become the thesis of albums from Janet Jackson’s Control to SZA’s CTRL. The lack of control was imminent in the careers of Lauryn Hill and Whitney Houston, and in the ways the industry’s tyranny contributed to their downward spiral, eclipsing their legacies. More recently, it was present in Teyana Taylor’s dizzying rollout for K.T.S.E, a Kanye-led operation that seemed to blindside her as much as it did the public. Throughout our conversation, she’s being as frank and honest as she can be but one thing stands out to me. She’s hesitant to curse. It seems like something she had to be conscious of before, and is now getting used to without any oversight.
I remind Tink of the last time she spoke to Noisey. “In three to five years, I want to be on tour, selling out arenas, just having a personal, conversational onstage with millions of people,” she said. She laughs before I can finish listing them off to her, like you do when reread old diaries from middle school. “That’s so cute,” she says mid laugh. Tink’s new goals have no timeline, but are still lofty. “I don’t want to surround my entire career around hitting the charts, but I’d really like to have a No. 1 single,” she says. “To be able to put a No. 1 up on the board…In due time, it’s going to come.”
As for any news on an album, you’ll have to stay tuned. “I don’t want to rush it. That’s the great thing about being independent. Nothing’s forced,” she says. If I feel like coming with an album tomorrow, we could make that happen. Me and my fans, we’re on a roller coaster together. Wherever they take me, wherever we go, I’m just here for the ride.” Of course, I needed to know the status of Winter’s Diary 5, and Tink assures me she’s been plotting on the next installment. She knows how special that series is to her hardcore fans. But for God’s sake, stop asking her about it. “Sometimes it does get under my skin. It’s like man, I got so much more material for y’all, y’all don’t even know.”
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.