Childhood tennis star. Academic genius. MTV Award winner. Style icon.
Take a good look at Tkay Maidza’s myriad credentials — she’s quite the polymath. In fact, at just 23-years-old, the hip hop queen-elect has more talent than you can shake a racket at. If touring with Mark Ronson and Charlie XCX and starring in a Champagne commercial alongside Usain Bolt wasn’t enough to convince you that this girl’s going places, then maybe a refresher of the past six months will:
After signing to British indie label 4AD (Grimes, St. Vincent), Tkay dropped the most banging-est mash-up album you’ll likely hear this year when, back in August, Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 came into the world. The second entry of a trilogy of works, it combines influences as diverse as Missy Elliot, Janet Jackson, and The Beatles on tracks like ‘Shook’ and ’24k’. And since the release, the Zimbabwean-Australian starlet has popped up everywhere from Vogue and Pitchfork to the FIFA 2021 soundtrack.
With her freshest songs racking up over two million plays apiece on Spotify in just a few short months, the latter half of 2020 has been “like a crazy adrenaline rush,” Tkay says. “Everything just feels like a bigger splash than the last.” At the rate she’s going, Tkay will be riding a tsunami into 2021.
It’s clear to see why. Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 is a record that bursts with color and energy — and Tkay has built a whole universe around it by utilizing the same creative verve in her visual presence as she does in the music. With vibrant music videos, ’90s-inspired photoshoots, and high-concept merchandise all combining under one roof to present a Last Year Was Weird package that bursts with personality, Tkay has few rivals in her field.
“It was always meant to be a statement to say that I can exist in different ways,” she says, flanked by an array of pot plants while speaking from her parents’ house in Adelaide. It’s just like she told Nike back in 2017: “If you really want people to notice you, you need to have a really cool visual package.”
It’s clear that no part of the Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2 presentation has been an afterthought. With Pinterest mood boards, video treatments, and a book’s worth of Instagram pages informing every element of the graphic design process (from pointed, blocky type fonts to bubblegum color schemes), Tkay has been plotting the look of her most recent release from the very earliest stages of development.
“I let the music write itself,” she exclaims. “But then I see a whole world evolve around it. When I know the song is good, I can picture exactly what I’m going to wear — and what the vibe of the video is going to be like.”
Her most recent video, ’24k,’ is as good a place to start as any. While the Mad Max “tech romance” inspired clip for ‘Shook’ (directed by Beyonce and Dua Lipa collaborator Jenna Marsh) made a massive statement combining junkyards, biker gangs, dancers, and deserts, ‘You Sad’ and ‘Don’t Call Again’ dialed back the scale and amped up the color with kaleidoscopic CGI and references to Charlie’s Angels. The latter two had to be shot on green screen due to COVID-19 restrictions, so when given a chance to get out into the world again for her latest single, Tkay made sure she made the most of it.
“It’s so important to get my personality in there because this project represents everything that I’m about,” she says assertively. “I’ve played sport my whole life — tennis, soccer, everything — so I wanted to have that balance of being feminine, but in a masculine way. Sport feels like an honest representation of that. It’s what being a tomboy is all about.”
No surprises then — ’24k’ turns the energy up to 100, filling out gym halls and boxing rings with breakdancers and strobe lights to amplify the boisterous energy supplied by the track’s pumping beat and rhythmic vocals. Most striking, though, are Tkay’s bodacious outfits; they’re the kind of high-concept get-ups that hark back to the golden years of MTV.
A jumpsuit-mermaid-wedding-dress hybrid and a zebra-print trenchcoat are among the highlights in ’24k’. “It’s a way to express how fun you are,” says Tkay, citing the couture garmets supplied by Berlin label Namilia as central to the concept from the get-go. So much importance was placed on styling, she admits, that they ended up postponing the shoot for three weeks to wait for the clothes to arrive from Germany: “It was in the middle of the pandemic — DHL was like, “We don’t know where the parcel is!”
But for Tkay, fashion means more than just surface impressions. “With strong, structured clothes you create new shapes. Your existing body doesn’t matter — you can become whatever you want.” And since the Last Year Was Weird story is “all about growing, and evolving,” it’s important to reflect that in the imagery. “When I’m making all these Pinterest collages, I’m thinking of the ultimate Tkay. If she were a real person, what would she wear?”
As the Pinterest mantle ‘POWERPUFF BITCH’ rightly suggests, this determination and zeal stems back to her childhood. The ’90s, Tkay says, was a “simpler time,” where people expressed themselves through color and comfort; baggy pants and big shirts. “You could really tell what kind of person someone was based on what they wore back then,” she continues, citing the “hyperreal” and “tomboyish” looks of Lauryn Hill, Naomi Campbell, and Aaliyah as key inspirations.
“When you grow up, you want to find where you come from more and more,” says Tkay, laughing as she sends over a photo of her younger self, dressed in a crop top and shorts. “A lot of people mirror who they were as a child in their clothes — I literally don’t think my style has changed since then!”
It’s “future nostalgia,” as she describes it, that is at the heart of her identity: a sense of longing for the sounds and sights of her youth, seen from the vantage of the present, and powered with the energy to take it somewhere new. With this concept in mind, it’s no surprise to learn that founding a personal fashion brand was the final piece in the puzzle for Tkay’s far-reaching Last Year Was Weird campaign. Inspired by the entrepreneurship of musicians like Rihanna and Tyler, The Creator, and a love for vibrant start-up brands and independent designers like Mowalola, Tkay knew from the start that the standard artist merchandising route wasn’t for her.
“When I was in high school, I remember making these big collages and printing them onto shirts. But it was so expensive, and I did not know much about promoting clothing back then,” Tkay reflects of her early forays into the world of design. “But it became more important to me again around Last Year Was Weird because I wanted the project to exist in so many different ways — not just pigeonholed as one thing. And I’ve been doing music for so long — I need other avenues to be creative, to express myself.”
The Last Year Was Weird clothing range, then, has its sights set on much greater things. “I want to do pop-ups in London, New York, LA — and I would love to open a flagship, to bring it to festivals and creative hubs, and to have musicians plan so we can promote each other’s brands.”
“I really believe in the concept of a brand being by the people, for the people — That’s what excites me more than anything.”
With the third and final EP of the Last Year Was Weird series due for completion in 2021 after Tkay jets back to LA this winter (“Adelaide’s a bit too relaxed for me — anyone with big dreams leaves eventually!”), Tkay’s already thinking about how she can expand her world even further. “It’s all about just doing anything I can do maximize the project,” she says.
And be it “strapping a tripod to a bike” or flying a drone around the Australian outback, you can be sure that Tkay will go the extra mile to deliver her craft with an element of swagger. Because in her world, if you want to prove your substance, you need to have some style.