High Beams On, Full Speed Ahead: Tkay Maidza is just starting
As she waves goodbye to her Last Year Was Weird trilogy, the LA-via-Adelaide rapper now has her sights on something bigger.
Header image and in-article images by Morgan Sette.
Amongst a warped choir and firing lasers, Tkay Maidza glides with a confidence as if she’s rapping over a simple percussion loop: “I been, slept on / they late, can't cope / high beams, we gone.” Leaving behind those that doubt her, you get the sense that the Los Angeles-based rapper isn’t just assured in her skills but also her future, assured in the journey that she’s to follow in the years to come. “My foot on a neck that’s collateral damage when I snap on ‘em,” she raps.
It’s a long way from where Maidza used to be, as a shy and constantly moving teenager finding her footings in a music industry where no one looked or sounded anything like her.
Born Takudzwa Maidza, the Zimbabwean-born musician seems like the type to never stay still for too long. She migrated from her Zimbabwe home to Perth when she was five, moving - with her family - to Kalgoorlie and Whyalla before settling in Adelaide when she was 10. At school, Maidza split her time between academic endeavours, music and tennis (the latter to the point where she almost went pro and was trained by Lleyton Hewitt's former coach). Eventually, she dropped the former two to focus on music when one of her raps - the rave-y Brontosaurus - began to take off in 2013.
Initially, Tkay Maidza’s sound flirted between the intersection of hip-hop and dance music’s many sub-genres, from the tropical tinges of Switch Lanes and the trap-ier Ghost to her EDM collaboration with Martin Solveig, Do It Right. Her debut album - 2016’s TKAY - seemed to feature Maidza attempt all of them at once, and while it certainly showcased potential (enough so to warrant not just approval from Run The Jewels’ Killer Mike, but also a guest verse), the album reflected Maidza’s unsureness of what sound to stick to and highlighted the problem that occurs when you make music without even being sure of what music you want to create.
“I didn’t know where I was sitting back then or what I was really aiming to do,” she recalls from her Los Angeles apartment, where she’s finally settled in after moving to America in January. “My team’s consensus was that I just needed a big song to propel me to the next level, but having a hit song is like winning the lottery.” From external reflection, it seems like TKAY was Maidza throwing everything at the wall, hoping that something would stick and give her that big hit. “I didn’t even know what that one song sounded like, and when I finished my album, I liked it, but it was completely different to what I was listening to; to who I am.”
When TKAY’s eventual roll-out finished and questions regarding her second album began to emerge, Maidza didn’t even want to think about it. “I wasn’t ready. I didn’t know what that [second album] would sound like, and I didn’t know where to start,” she recollects. “I wanted to look into myself more and find some depth. I wanted to get a better idea of who I was and give myself a bit of time to get to know myself - and get to know Tkay Maidza - more than what I did.”
Last Year Was Weird - a three-part trilogy of EPs that have defined Tkay Maidza’s journey since her debut album - show the result of what Maidza’s search for herself uncovered. The first of the three EPs - Vol. 1, released in 2018 - saw a more assured Tkay Maidza glide between high-energy raps with Duckwrth (Flexin’) and stripped-back R&B (White Rose) alike, continuing to show the sense of versatility she debuted through her album but in a way that reflected her actual self: it was more like the music she listened to, for starters.
2020’s second volume of Last Year Was Weird showed a similar sense of self-empowerment, both in Maidza’s understanding of her musical vision and the way she delivers said vision, in the confidence of her delivery and how she made every beat and every look her own. One second, she’d dance amongst Kaytranada-esque grooves (24k). The next, she’d be navigating a warped production with the ease of Missy Elliott (Shook). Straight after that, she’d be trading bars with JPEGMAFIA - someone who often overshadows his collaborators, but not in the case of Tkay. If Vol. 1 was Tkay Maidza lacing her shoes, then Vol. 2 saw Maidza take off with a rapid pace, leaving those that glossed over her presence in the dust
With that metaphor in mind, Vol. 3 is the final stretch of Maidza’s victory lap. She knows that she’s got it in the bag, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to let everyone else breathe and catch up.
Released in July this year, Last Year Was Weird Vol. 3 feels like a step up even against the heights of its predecessors, a moment that sees Tkay Maidza step into the power she’s discovered over the last few years and bask in the glory that comes with its impact. It veers amongst the soundscapes she’s tirelessly brought to life over the previous chapters, elevating each edge of her sound - the high-energy rap side (Kim, Syrup, High Beams); the collected, soulful side (Cashmere, Breathe); the dancier, clubbier side (So Cold) - to the highest of forms, showing her dexterity in the sounds she’s carved as her own over the last three/four years.
“Anyone who knows me knows that I have those sides to my personality; there’s a soft side where I just want to sit in my feelings and have everyone leave me alone for a month, and there’s a more chaotic side… like how I used to doorbell dash or throw rocks at houses when I was growing up,” she explains, asked about the versatility - the two-sided nature - of her music. “One can’t exist without the other because each side needs a release.” It’s a divide present in TKAY, but because the whole album had a dance-esque setting, the low-energy moments still felt like Maidza at fever pitch. “It wasn’t always reflecting how I completely felt,” she admits.
Nowadays, Tkay Maidza better understands how to convey the many dimensions of her personality - and that’s something that shows within the fibres of Last Year Was Weird. Take the contrast between Awake - from Vol. 2 - and Vol. 3’s Cashmere, for example; Awake witnessing Maidza “push it to the absolute furthest we could go” with the help of JPEGMAFIA, while Cashmere “fulfils that energy” in Maidza through a different sound, and entirely on her own. “They’re both me, just… different sides of me,” she summarises.
It’s a self-certainty that Dan Farber - the executive producer of the entire Last Year Was Weird trilogy - has helped bring out of Maidza, she admits. While TKAY was dotted with guest producers and songwriters, the Last Year Was Weird trilogy was built entirely alongside Farber, who helped Tkay define the “common thread” between her many sides. “He always pushes me to find a creative concept that can visually bring everything together. We were visualising what [the trilogy] looked like and sounded like before we even started making songs, and that really built up that trust,” she says. “Building that trust is so rewarding because then you know you have someone there no matter what; someone to help you make sense of it all - that’s been the biggest difference for me.”
In 2015, Tkay Maidza was someone already at the forefront of Australian hip-hop. She supported Charli XCX around the country, played more festivals than you could count (including international heavy-hitters like SXSW), and each new song came with an adjoining tour that often sold out weeks before they’d begin. In saying that, it wasn’t a life you would probably pick for Maidza if you came across her at a show, with the musician - back then - being a soft-spoken and shy presence still getting used to being thrown into the deep end of commercial fame after the success of her earliest singles.
Nowadays, Tkay Maidza is someone that exudes confidence. In the music video for Kim, for example, she pays tribute to some of the more infamous Kims in pop culture, parodying Kim Kardashian’s champagne-wielding PAPER Magazine photoshoot, wearing Lil Kim’s notorious MTV VMAs lavender jumpsuit (nipple pasty and all), and cosplaying as Kim Possible and villain Shego with collaborator Yung Baby Tate. The music video for Shook (from Vol. 2 of Last Year Was Weird) boasts a similar level of creative confidence, donning Maidza doing full choreography with the precision - and looks - you’d expect from Missy Elliott or Beyoncé at their peak. They’re things that Maidza would only dream of doing six years ago.
“I’m still really shy, but I think when you have big ideas, it just makes sense for you to step up into it. If I were feeling really shy while filming the video for Shook or Kim, it wouldn’t be the same,” she says, asked about how her journey in confidence has impacted her art. “I feel like every video has come with progress; every time I embody it more. I’m still learning and it has been a challenge, but whenever you do research for videos and think about how you want it to come across… how else do you want it to look?”
The visual side of Tkay Maidza’s art - the fashion, the videos, the creative direction - is where much of that artistic confidence has stemmed from over the last few years, she admits, and it’s something she’s working on building in her personal life too. “I think as my confidence in my art has gone up, my confidence in how I am personally and how I conduct myself has gone up too,” she says. “You’re earning life experiences and they give you confidence that you’re able to implement into your daily life… and then that brings you new experiences you can write about.”
It’s a cycle that Maidza has been experiencing herself over the last few years, such as in her move to Los Angeles at the start of the year. “I just feel more confident now, and that comes through in my writing too.”
Born in the wake of TKAY, the Last Year Was Weird trilogy was a challenge in self-assuredness and self-confidence; Maidza proving to herself that she does know her vision and that she can execute it to the highest level every time. She’s passed the challenge, she concludes, with the rapper leaving the other side of the trilogy much more in-tune with herself, her musicality and her personality - as well as how the three intertwine to create the Tkay Maidza that has been splashed over billboards and magazines for the last three-to-four years.
So with that behind her - with Maidza sitting in her new Los Angeles apartment, basking in the highest form of glory (both internal and external) she’s received in her career thus far - what does she have next on her plate? Her second album; the one she never believed she could write when TKAY’s long-winding roll-out wrapped up five years ago.
She’s tight-lipped about how she aims to showcase her evolution with the second album but mentions that she’s been busy collaborating with artists like Bree Runway - “I’ve had two studio sessions with Bree,” she confirms, “and she’s so special, she’s just selling that confidence and everyone wants it.” - and enjoying re-building an entire creative vision from the ground-up again, with the Last Year Was Weird universe now behind her. This time around, however, Maidza knows the road ahead of her, and she’s racing forwards at full throttle, high beams on blast.
“I think I know my lane, and now it’s all about building up from that,” she says, asked about what her future holds. “I can still experiment and go wherever, but I think there’s a clear road for me to travel now, and it makes sense for me to build up on that because I had this aim, we reached that goal, and why would I be like, ‘okay that’s done, now let’s do something else,’ you know?”
“I learnt my lessons, I know what I’m good at now, and I can see what I can do if I apply myself. I’m just going to stay focused and keep doing the thing.”