Photography Morgan Sette

Tkay Maidza is the Aussie artist reimagining alt-rap

The artist's vulnerable, organic flows set her apart in a world where women rappers find the most success in peddling bad bitch characters.

by Savannah Whitmer
|
18 November 2020, 11:20am

Photography Morgan Sette

For all of us familiar (read: obsessed) with Tkay Maidza’s latest EP, Last Year Was Weird Vol. 2., you have to hand it to her — Tkay knows what works. “You don’t really expect success and you can’t really expect for things to blow up,” the 23-year-old rapper says from her childhood bedroom in Adelaide, Australia. “But I’ve been around long enough to understand what works and what doesn’t.” Few artists as down to earth as Tkay could make that sort of statement, but then again, how many other artists her age have already been pushing the envelope in the music industry for years?

What clicks in the second instalment of her Last Year Was Weird trilogy is Tkay’s dizzying versatility. It’s a mix that’s equal parts groovy and intense, with trap-infused tracks like “Awake” featuring JPEGMAFIA, balancing out smooth flows on the cheery “You Sad” or the taunting It Girl manifesto “Don’t Call Again” with Kari Faux. Throughout it all, Tkay swings breezily from blissed out bars to apocalyptic fearlessness, tying it all together with her percussive vocals. If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. “I’m a chaotic neutral, for sure,” she laughs. But under the ebb and flow of the EP is a soulful, vivid current that makes for easy listening all day, no matter the mood.

From the outside, it seems effortless, but Tkay’s dealt with her fair share of growing pains to get to a point where she’s happy with her music. Growing up gracefully under the pressure of producing content is a talent in itself, but it’s one that she’s honed since being catapulted into the spotlight at 17 with her first EDM banger, “Brontosaurus,” back in 2013.

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Tkay’s not the type to be a one-hit-wonder, though. She managed not only to hold onto that first bit of momentum but to build on it. Almost immediately after pivoting from her studies to a full time music career, she found herself offering up flashy flows on Troye Sivan songs and performing alongside Charli XCX and Mark Ronson at festivals the world over.

The natural culmination of all that raw talent and hard work was a record deal and dance pop album all her own, the eponymous TKAY in 2016. But after it dropped, she panicked — branding herself an electro-pop artist prompted a deep existential crisis. “I’m into lyrics and authenticity, and I felt like what I was doing was too easy,” she says. “I was having a bit of imposter’s syndrome because I didn’t have to think too much about what I’m saying. For a while I found that fun, but then after a while I was like, wait, I feel really empty. I’d go into sessions and I didn’t really know what to talk about because I could talk about anything and it didn’t mean anything. It just became really confusing.”

It wasn’t until after months of touring and several sessions with producer Dan Farber that Tkay had the ‘aha’ moment that would change her course. The phrase she used offhand to describe the TKAY era of her life to Farber — saying that last year was really weird — would jumpstart a creative metamorphosis. “It’s normal for people in their early twenties to be like, everything that I was, I kind of hate it and need to become someone else. That’s so normal,” she says, thinking back to that feeling of disconnect. To counter it, she reintroduced herself to artists who had inspired her as a kid, like Lauryn Hill and Janet Jackson, and started laying the groundwork for melodies that meant more to her. With her eyes on then-emerging artists like Teyana Taylor and SZA, Tkay undertook a total artistic transformation. “I wanted to see if I could do that, and I believed I could,” she says of the shift.

The result was a more exploratory and reggae-style sound on 2018’s Last Year Was Weird Vol. 1, a relaxed, smooth EP straining against the pressures of her first electro-pop successes. As she put it in the opening lines of “Growing Up”: “I’m getting a bunch of BS/ Cooked up a cake and they wanted a pie.” That’s how she’d been feeling even up until this latest EP — like the people around her still expected her to be the explosive girl rapper collabing on club hits, instead of an experimental force to be reckoned with in the indie R&B and hip-hop spheres.

But her willingness to be vulnerable in organic flows resisted easy categorisation in a world where women rappers were finding the most success in peddling bad-bitch characters. With Last Year Was Weird, Tkay’s intensely self-aware lyrics and DIY green screen music videos launched her to the forefront of a new realm of alt-rappers, alongside trendsetters like Kari Faux and Tierra Whack. “They’re minding their own business and just want to figure out where they stand,” she says. “You can hear that in the music — we’re confused, but we’re so confident in being lost, if that makes sense. We’re empowered by the idea of admitting that we don’t know everything.”

There’s something fearless about feeling most in your element when you’re overwhelmed by the process of growing up and making a name for yourself. But Tkay is one of those rare artists who finds freedom in total honesty, and now walks into studio sessions for Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3 feeling grounded by whatever she’s about to get off her chest. “If I say something that’s really honest and makes sense, I’m not afraid to say it,” she says. I think that was my biggest problem with my earlier music — if it just didn’t feel like it fully aligned with me, that’s what made me feel worse.”

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That’s not to say that Tkay’s idea of honest self-reflection precludes a little ego in Vol. 2 — and why not, when she’s at the top of her game? “These mans, yeah I got 'em all shook/ Earthquake, yeah I got 'em all shook/ I came, I don't play by the book,” as she lays it out in “Shook.” But what sets her apart is her transparency: that she still sees herself as the girl next door, even if that door could be in Adelaide this week and LA the next. “From my perspective, I’m just one of those suburban girls from Australia, and we’re just chill cool girls,” she laughs. “I mean, I have confidence, but it doesn’t always make sense for me to spread that message every time. There’s more that I want to talk about.”

Whatever it is she wants to experiment with on Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3 (expected early next year) and beyond, she’ll be backed by an army of gen Z listeners craving her unique blend of vulnerability and strong-willed self-love. And for Tkay, that’s the most affirming part of her whole evolution. “I’m in that place where everyone sees that it’s working and I don’t have people asking me why I’m changing it up anymore, which fuels me not to question why I’m doing this either. There is a place for this music and for me,” she says with a sly smile. “Now I'm just like, if you love this, wait ‘till you hear the next one.”

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