The Airbnb in Los Angeles that Tkay Maidza has been living in for the past four months is now covered in make-up stains from where she has made herself fully at home. For much of 2020 she was in Adelaide, where she lives with her parents and a younger brother (who is always stealing her clothes), so she’s enjoying this taste of independence – or, in her own words, what it's like to “find my own place and really just do the jump to full adult.”
Now 25, Tkay has used that freedom wisely. When we speak she’s just dropped – or more accurately “dripped” – her single “Syrup” into the world. The glam-grime video sees Tkay in floor length fur and six inch electric blue nails running a syrup-dealing ring while the song, all subwoofer rattle and gloopy bubble synths, thumps in the background as she declares “I just wanna be rich, thick, sweet” in the hook.
Tkay has spent the better part of the last decade building up a fanbase and body of work that, until recently, was impossible to pin down to any single genre or movement. The rapper/singer/songwriter, born in Zimbabwe and raised in Australia, first stomped onto the scene aged 17 as part of the electronic/dance/hip-hop era that also swept in artists like M.I.A. and Azealia Banks. Over the years she has zipped from one sound to the next like a discerning hummingbird – here a Martin Solveig feature, there a space-haze reimagining of Pixies’ “Where Is My Mind?” – without ever taking a beat to land.
Last year, Tkay found a new home with the experimental indie label 4AD (label mates include The National, Holly Herndon and, until recently, Grimes), and is now preparing to draw a line under the transitional era that put her on the path that was previously obscured by her more frenetic creative approach.
Her 2016 debut album, simply titled TKAY, was a hi-energy explosion of vibrant, bouncing beats and rapid volley flows that pinball ricochet around the brain. But on its release, Tkay was coming to the realisation that she had outgrown the teenage enthusiasm that saw her eager to dive in and experience as much as possible.
“I was like, so much stuff is happening, I need to just try everything,” she recalls. “But I wasn’t fully sure of who I was because I was so young. I was in a climate where everyone was just chasing singles and trying to beat the last song, but my favourite artists were alternative rap and R&B, people like SZA, building their discography in a way that’s steady and tells a story. So I needed to realise my purpose and find the right team and start all over again.”
Tkay turned to producer Dan Farber, who she befriended when they worked together on “Castle In The Sky” from her debut, for help plotting her next moves. “We hung out for a few months just talking about dreams and getting to know each other and he was like ‘I think I can help you do what you wanna do, but it will take five years to really see a change’. So we had the idea that I would do sessions here and there, but whenever I had free time I would be at his studio until midnight, trying to finish ideas and figure out the vibes.”
Reluctant to begin work on a second album (“I just didn’t feel like I was ready”), Tkay resolved to make her next project, Last Year Was Weird – a three part series of EPs that allowed her to express herself in a way that corresponded more closely with her moods and feelings. Vol 1 landed in 2018, its mellow, sunshine energy a sonic leap away from the riot of TKAY, drawing a firm line between the boisterous youth audiences were first introduced to and a maturing artist coming into their prime. Vol 2, which followed in summer 2020, was a leap again – harder, more assertive, with endlessly catchy hooks and features from JPEGMAFIA and Kari Faux. Vol 3, due on the 9th of July, completes the trilogy.
“The goal with the third one was just to cement the world,” says Tkay. “We were just trying to do like a final goodbye and round it up, as opposed to feeling like ‘it has to be the craziest thing ever!’ because that’s how you get lost again.”
Striking the right balance between her natural eclecticism and the desire to find a consistent thread in her identity is important to Tkay. “If you have a consistent message and a mood, you can have the distorted rap, you can have smooth dance, you can have the downtempo stuff,” she tells me. “But you can’t jump too far, is what I realised. Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.”
It’s a solid philosophy and has served her well in the creation of this record, which feels like the exact midpoint between its two prequels – almost indulgently laid back R&B with just enough trap-styled bombast to remind you that for all her “alt” credentials, Tkay is a bonafide pop star on the brink of a real break-out moment.
In a lot of ways that moment feels long overdue. Her position as “being like… one of five African artists in Australia” has been somewhat of a barrier to gaining the mainstream attention she has deserved over the last eight years. There isn’t much of a scene for hip-hop and R&B in Australia. For years, the ARIA Awards (Australia’s equivalent of the BRITs) had a catch all “urban” category where skin colour was the only commonality between the nominees. Tkay’s ambitions lie beyond Australia’s borders, anyway.
“Right now it’s really exciting because there’s so many people like Sampa and Genesis Owusu and Kwame, a lot of people that are finally popping up and existing overseas because locally people don’t care as much. You can go elsewhere and make it work there and they usually realise when you’re gone ‘oh that thing I was ignoring was actually pretty good’.”
In addition to her outsider status, Australia’s relative isolation compared to the rest of the English-speaking western world has long left its upcoming talent overlooked in the bigger cultural picture. Tkay’s contribution to the blueprint can be seen underlying the audio and visuals of a new generation of Black women in music who cannot be limited or confined to (historically racist) categorisations. And while the simple virtue of being a black girl creating music outside of hip-hop and r&b genres meant her blend of editorialised goth girl and highly colour saturated, brightly patterned pop aesthetics was considered left-leaning and outside of the mainstream back in the early-2010s, it is almost standard uniform for the stars rising to the top in 2021.
“I’m realising now I was part of that influence,” she says. “But in the moment I didn’t really know what I was doing. I can’t really be mad, I just need to follow my own path and tell the story I want to tell and if things work out and it becomes the greatest thing ever, then great!”
Although she speaks casually, there is a determination and drive underlying her character. Before music took hold, Tkay was seriously training to be a professional tennis player. If her career hadn’t taken off when it did, she would have not long finished studying architecture at university. “I think I have an ambitious side to me where if I’m doing anything it has to be the best thing ever, or what’s the point,” she says.
All told, the stage is set for a major success story for Tkay over the next few years. When pandemic restrictions lift, she’s eager to get out on the road touring, but she’s already thinking about her second album – finally ready for it. “I’m kind of back to that ‘okay, who are you again?’ question, checking out the vibes, trying to skill level up a bit, then when it’s comfortable we’re gonna go in and… album!” she claps, but she’s under no pressure for now.
“The thing about music is that no one really knows what’s going to work. I think the people that are listening to me, they know what they’re in for… or they don’t know what they’re in for, but whenever we put the songs out it seems like the right song at the right time.”
Last Year Was Weird Vol 3. will be released on the 9th of July via 4AD. Tkay’s latest single “Cashmere” is out now.