Woman with braided hair wearing a headscarf and orange top leans on a street pole.
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From The Magazine

Tinashe's Money Moves

After years of trying to please the mainstream, the genre-busting pop star is betting on herself.

Written by Owen Myers

If staying afloat in pop is a marathon, not a sprint, then Tinashe is up there with the best long-distance athletes. Her sold-out February show at New York’s Terminal 5 was a crash-course through a prolific career defined by bold genre experimentalism, as well as a showcase for her own stamina. In a two-dozen song set, during which she hardly seemed to pause for breath, she was most electric when she teased out unexpected connections: fusing knotty electronic beats with athletic choreography, pairing her soulful singing voice with a top-coat of TRL–era gloss. Her outfit — a bulky oversized vest and miniskirt straps that flew like Bob Fosse fringe — split the difference between style rebel and glamorous showgirl.

A few songs in, she played “Talk to Me Nice,” a jittery workout from last year’s BB/ANG3L, and pointed the mic to the crowd for a line she knew they’d scream along to: “Couldn’t be fake if I tried.”

For Tinashe, those words have become a mission statement. Amid the buzz of two self-released mixtapes, she signed to RCA Records in 2012 and helped to create the template for a mainstream starlet with deep tastemaker appeal thanks to her skulking club-banger “2 On.” Co-signs followed from Drake and Nicki Minaj, as well as collaborations with both A-list hitmakers and left-field innovators. But it was precisely this eclecticism that led her in 2019 to split with her label, which she says didn’t trust her creative vision. Now, across a hot streak of releases — 2019’s Songs for You, 2021’s 333, and BB/ANG3L, which is getting a companion project this year — she’s been making some of the most singular music of her career.

In a VIP area after the show, Tinashe seems a little dazed, as any human who had just spent the past 90 minutes doing straight cardio with a live mic would be. While she’s unfailingly friendly and professional, posing for pictures and sipping from a beaker of white wine, she doesn’t have too long to bask in compliments. Already her mind is onto the next show in Philadelphia. “My parents are here, so I’m getting the train,” she says. “It’s pretty comfy.” It’s the kind of unglamorous detail you might not expect from someone who has just played to thousands of fans, but such is life for an artist intent on forging her own path. And after years of answering to others, Tinashe wouldn’t have it any other way. “The biggest difference in how I feel is the creative freedom,” she tells me a few days later from her Boston hotel room. “That liberation is really nice.”

Diesel dress, Korobeynikov earrings, Swarovski rings, Giuseppe Zanotti shoes

What does it take to put together a tour like this?

I was conceptualizing this for at least six months. For an artist like me, who isn’t on a major label, I’m funding everything, pretty much. After I tour, I usually lose a couple hundred thousand dollars. We have to hire new choreographers, new dancers. We have new screens, new production. That’s aside from the logistics — the bus, lighting directors, production design, people that put it up and take it down every night, people that load it onto trucks, different drivers. It ends up being a lot, but I also don’t have the luxury of being able to spend months in rehearsals. So we plan, we plan, we plan — but we had five days of rehearsal, and then two days of tech.

That’s intense.

We put it all together in a week.

In your NPR Tiny Desk performance, you described yourself as “the rookie and the vet.” How do you relate to that phrase?

That’s how I feel a lot of the time. There’s so much that I still want to experience, and so many milestones that I hope to reach. At the same time, I do have the benefit of experience. When you’ve written thousands of songs and you’ve played hundreds of shows, there’s just something that you learn.

As a teenager, you were in a girl group called the Stunners, which was assembled by “Graduation” singer Vitamin C and included your fellow pop star Hayley Kiyoko. Do you look back on that period fondly?

Yeah. I had never recorded in studios before then. I went on an arena tour with Justin Bieber — that was so f*cking sick.

What surprised you about getting a glimpse into that world?

The crowds were so loud. Those little girls — the screams are like nothing you’ve ever heard before. There would be thousands of people waiting outside the bus. I’ve never experienced anything like that since. He was very young and very excited, so he was milking it. One time I went to the Mall of America with him and a group of girls were following us, and he whispered to me, “Let’s start running.” So we start running, then the girls start running, security starts running. It was wild.

Fendi dress, Oscar de la Renta earrings, stylist’s own bracelets and head scarf, Dion Lee boots
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You’ve always moved freely between pop, R&B, and hip-hop, but on BB/ANG3L, it seems like you really found a sweet spot with this kind of lush club music.

The songs were all pretty natural. They flowed out, I suppose. None of them felt particularly strenuous, or like I had to excavate the lyrics. That’s probably why they feel kind of synergistic as a group. [Most of the time] I just freestyled it. That’s how I write 99% of my songs.

Which is not how most pop songs are made.

A lot of pop songs are made with a big team of writers, and that creates a lot less of that instinctual aspect. When I was with my old label, I would still write this way, but I always felt less confident in my own ideas and more susceptible to other people’s opinions. Whereas if I am working with a songwriter now — which is kind of rare — I’ll just be like, “Nah, I don’t think so.”

Did you feel like a fish out of water in those big rooms?

I was just young. I’d created all my mixtapes on my own, so it was my first time working [solo] in the industry and with other people. I want to be a good collaborator. I respect these people that I’m working with, and I respect their opinions as well. It’s an insidious process of losing your sense of direction. You work with people that have had several No. 1 records and they’re like, “Well, this is how it should be made.” And you’re like, “OK.”

The Attico top, Dion Lee dress (worn as a skirt), Versace jewelry

You always released mixtapes alongside your official studio albums. Why was it important for you to keep doing those projects?

I don’t think I ever made an active choice to do that. It was the way that I could release the music unauthorized. I didn’t want [2016’s] Nightride to be considered a mixtape. To me, that was an album, but my label did not want to promote it or didn’t really agree with releasing it. So it did not count toward my contract. I was very frustrated at the time. (RCA did not comment.)

Your fans had theories that RCA was sabotaging your career.

I don’t think anyone was trying to sabotage me. What would be the benefit of that? I think it was just misguided business: some bad decisions made, some decisions that didn’t make sense to me. When you reach the meeting place between art and commerce, there’s always going to be disagreements.

At times, the industry — and even music fans to a degree — has struggled to place you in a particular lane.

In my earlier days, I felt there was a big need for people to box me in and [make me] feel like I needed to choose a direction. But I don’t really subscribe to that anymore, so I don’t feel that pressure. I just make what I want to make. From day one to now, you can see that the range of things that are inspiring or interesting to me is pretty consistent. I think I am some type of hybrid, in between a lot of different feelings or vibes.

Do you think people are warming up to that kind of fluidity?

A lot more than when I first got into the game. You see a lot more artists experimenting with genre- hopping. You see it especially in streaming and people making playlists, even though playlists are also a big problem because [they can be] so genre- rigid. It’s encouraging and exciting to see. There’s a long way to go, though. I roll my eyes whenever I see any type of genre marker on any of my music. It’s like, “Maybe it’s that to you.”

You released BB/ANG3L on your new label home, Nice Life Recording Company, and have teased that part two, titled Quantum Baby, is on the way.

There’s definitely more coming. I wanted to be able to focus on every single part of the project. Content comes and goes so quickly. I worked on these songs for two years, so you really want to be able to give them all their shine. That was the idea of releasing this project in installments.

How have the past few years changed your career goals?

The goals that I have are to create the best art that I can and go as hard as I can until I don’t want to anymore. That’s about as deep as it gets. In terms of arbitrary goals, like “I want a No. 1 album” or “I want a Grammy” — those things are great, but I don’t cling to those in a literal sense anymore.

How are you feeling ahead of this year’s Coachella performance?

I’m excited. I’ve come out as a guest several times, but this is the first time I’ll have a full set. The biggest thing is that it’s not the same as doing your own show, where everyone’s there to see you. I wouldn’t give the same performance to the core audience as I would to a “discover” audience. So it’s making small adjustments like that.

It’s the “rookie and the vet” again.


Miló Maria top, The Attico pants, Swarovski jewelry, stylist’s own sunglasses

Top image credit: Fendi dress, Oscar de la Renta earrings, stylist’s own bracelets and head scarf

Photographs by Eric Johnson

Styling by Tyler Esosa Okuns

Tailor: Jen Hebner at Carol Ai Studio Tailors

Talent Bookings: Special Projects

Photo Director: Alex Pollack

Editor in Chief: Lauren McCarthy

SVP Fashion: Tiffany Reid

SVP Creative: Karen Hibbert