Music

Rapper Tkay Maidza’s fleet-footed style-hopping has driven her international success. By Shaad D’Souza.

Tkay Maidza’s Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3

Australian artist Tkay Maidza performing in Copenhagen last year.
Credit: Gonzales Photo – Bo Kallberg

For the burgeoning pop star, resilience is an underrated but invaluable skill. Just look at Tkay Maidza. At 25, the Harare-born, Adelaide-raised, Los Angeles-based rapper, singer and songwriter has lived many lives within the music industry, several of which began with huge promise and, through no fault of her own, ended with a fizzle.

Her résumé charts a gruelling course through the halls of the major label pop factory, from self-releasing a surprise hit at 17 (the ravey “Brontosaurus”) to guesting on a number of club tracks by producers both mega-famous (Martin Solveig) and obscure (PC Music’s Danny L Harle) to, eventually, releasing TKAY, her much-hyped and then coolly received major label debut album. TKAY cycled through 12 separate producers across 14 tracks with little connective tissue to hold the whole thing together. The chorus of “Simulation” – a glib, would-be tropical house hit from TKAY on which Maidza’s voice is thinned out and made anonymous by layers of almost imperceptible autotune – inadvertently sums up the hamster-wheel grind of the whole affair: “I keep moving, I keep moving, I keep moving along / Stuck in a simulation.”

Maidza’s plight is not uncommon across the music industry: many young stars, especially female ones, are ferried from genre to genre by overzealous A&R reps until a style finally seems to fit the label’s vision for the artist. Many, like Maidza, find themselves saddled with EDM producers and the hope of a summer festival or radio hit as the only thing grafting together the collaboration. Maidza now says that in the early days of her career she was being steered wrongly by a team more interested in crafting accessible, broad-strokes hits than anything fitting her own artistic vision: an all-too-common situation for those fed into industry machinery before they can legally drink.

Still, resilience. Maidza has it in spades. With this month’s release of her Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 EP, she has lapped her past self, in both popularity and strength of vision. Seeming to play by nobody’s rules but her own, Maidza’s new iteration cements her as a shapeshifting-but-singular star and provides a blueprint for younger rappers seeking to find success outside the rigid confines of mainstream Australian rap.

The Last Year Was Weird series, which Maidza began in 2018 and followed with a second instalment in 2020, was intended as something of a palate cleanser. After the release of TKAY, Maidza was tapped out, due to deliver a sophomore record but unsure of where to go. She approached producer Dan Farber, who worked on TKAY’s “Castle in the Sky”, to assist her with a series of EPs that she could use to experiment with style and tone. The gambit worked: Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 1 shook something loose in Maidza. Its contemporary rap and R&B sounds were immediately a much better fit than the candy-coated, shallow synth-pop of her past records.

By the time Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 rolled around, Maidza’s vision had crystallised into something energised and entirely her own. The first rap release on storied label 4AD – best known for influential indie records from the likes of Cocteau Twins, The National and Pixies – the record traversed dazed funk and neo-soul, decaying industrial trap and the hydraulic whirr of early-2000s rap. At the centre was Maidza, who treated each genre tag like another glamorous outfit to try on, post on Instagram and then discard at will. Her infectious personality – now given space to shine among beats that she actually liked – was always front and centre.

Meticulous on every level, the EP made Maidza the minor star her early, label-compromised records never did. The eye-popping visuals for songs such as “You Sad” and “Shook” became perfect fodder for social media while the songs themselves proved durable in a way that “Simulation” never was. Critical stamps of approval came fast: YouTube music vlogger Anthony Fantano called the record his favourite EP of 2020 and the tastemaker site Pitchfork profiled Maidza in their “Rising” column. The mechanisms of the industry back home, of course, remained the same: the bigger singles from Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 gained little traction in Australia and failed to make a dent in Triple J’s Hottest 100, leading fans to condemn the radio station on Twitter. Maidza herself seemed unfazed by the parochial issue of an Australian radio countdown. In many ways, she had already won.

This makes Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 something of a victory lap. Of the three EPs in the series, Vol. 3 is the most stridently individual. A more formally playful EP than Vol. 2, it’s more immediate as well. It is a maniacal, gleeful cackle of a record that dares anyone who wrote off the first chapter of Maidza’s career to make the same mistake again; at the same time, it’s confident enough to not overplay Maidza’s dexterity or versatility with ham-fisted talent showcases. “We’re eating it all up from the garden of Eden,” Maidza sings on the EP’s first track, “Eden”. If this is sinning, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.

It’s paradoxical that the cure to TKAY’s swampy, multigenre messiness would be another series of multigenre records, but Maidza and Farber are smart, gonzo producers. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 feels like a high-budget video game with Maidza as the central character, traversing disparate environs without losing sight of her own identity. As Maidza skips from flow to flow – from guttural and rhythmic on “Syrup”, to screeching and flexing on “Kim”, to smooth and elasticated on “High Beams” – you begin to get a picture of her not as opportunistic or unfocused, but as a devout rap fan whose tastes are too broad to fit into any one category. On “Kim”, the best track here, she shrieks with abandon: “Bitch I’m Kim, bitch I’m, bitch I’m Kim!” She is invoking multiple Kims: Possible, Lil’, and Kardashian, who are also three of the most disparate pop culture figures to have ever shared a name. Yet the comparison fits: Maidza can be everything all at once; the only cheap look on her would be compromise.

There is depth to Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3. “Cashmere” is funky, pensive balladry, and sees Maidza adopt so many different vocal styles that it feels like – to borrow a phrase from elite-tier musical code-switcher Drake – “Tkay feat. Tkay”, her singing and rapping serving such distinct purposes in the song as to create an intense, forceful dynamism.

Its lyrics skew hazy as opposed to specific and are gorgeously impressionistic:

Do what you gotta do,
There’s not a lot in me left
You know it’s hard on me
This time is the last time
’Cause I’m soft like cashmere
Spreading out like a wildfire.

Maidza’s success – derived from fleet-footed style-hopping – feels like a model that could work for other Australian stars looking to succeed outside the local ecosystem. Genesis Owusu, a rapper born in Ghana and raised in Canberra, has recently found similar success with his debut album Smiling with No Teeth. Undoubtedly one of the most remarkable Australian rap records in recent years, it displays a voracious appetite for genre, jumping easily between rap, rock, new wave and pop with impunity. Like Maidza, Owusu has his eyes trained on an international audience, having felt confined in Australia. Its likely that Smiling with No Teeth will help him hopscotch to a comfortable platform not unlike Maidza’s, through a similarly genre-agnostic approach.

All in all, Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 3 is a spectacular about-face, one that serves as its own proof of concept: space and time to create can yield a spectacular, singular result. In a recent interview, Maidza said as much: “This is my own world, and if you’re willing to be a part of it, come along.”

You’d be foolish not to.

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 24, 2021 as "Beating the machine".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.