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A comprehensive breakdown of the musicality in Tinashe's discography

Da’Shan Smith

 // Jun 20, 2018

Artist // Instagram

Although I'm wrapped up in this super-packed June of hip-hop's goliaths and titans releasing masterpieces (and competing on the charts), I can't help but to escape back to Tinashe's Joyride, fairly often. Recently, the singer has been teasing studio sessions and snippets of new music on her Instagram stories—despite Joyride's lukewarm April release.

That being said, the general public's been lost in translation with Tinashe for a while. So much so that she had to utter "I will not be ignored" on the segway between Nightride's "Sacrifices" and "Company." Last year, I even experienced the problem first hand, as Tinashe happened to be my first face-to-face interview with a major recording artist.

She had just started the second leg of her two-and-half-year long album rollout for Joyride, and "Flame"—a song she later revealed made her "cry" when required to record—had been drastically different from the majestic brilliance of the previously released Nightride. As both a novice music journalist and a diehard fan, I had been puzzled by the short-lived Nightride era and even prayed its companion piece would not be in the bubblegum pop direction of "Flame."

Whenever someone finds out I'm an OG Tinashe fan, I'm always hit with the inquiry of "what went wrong," alongside a simultaneous rush of championing a cult legend-to-be in music. Usually, I attributed the problem to her mixtape sound clashing against her commercial releases—in addition to a peculiar selection of differing singles and their rushed phases post-"2 On." There's also the factor of media-forced mishaps that have preyed on colorism in black women, a lack of understanding music and its origins, and the frustrations of underappreciated black artists who help cultivate the culture in a mainstream sense.

I don't want this to turn into a "what went wrong" thinkpiece, because that narrative has become tiresome. Personal experience tells me that, up until now, Tinashe's been robbed the opportunity of having someone else break down the significance of her entire discography and diverse artistry— just as this is the case for a CVS-sized receipt of other artists.

While the likes of The Weeknd, Jhené Aiko, and the crooning-side of Drake often receive credit for pioneering Datpiff R&B mixtape culture, many tend to forget how Tinashe also played a leading part. In 2011, the teen actress—who was previously an extra for Justin Bieber's "Baby" and a former member of the short-lived girl group The Stunners—released a few demos on YouTube which quickly received buzz. One being a cover of Lil Wayne's "How To Love" and the other a flip of Britney Spears' "Blur" called "Can't Say No."

Using music producing software Pro-Tools, Tinashe began recording 2012's In Case We Die in her bedroom. The striking allure of Tinashe's music is that it gives the impression of existing in outer space, but in a galaxy we've yet to discover, on a quirky planet only the singer habitates. The PBR&B-laden mixtape helped establish her atmospheric tone, as she opens the project by confessing "I'm faded as a mouthafucka" on the time-warping, cinematic intro "The Last Night On Earth." In the song, she describes "floating on a funny green cloud," a line that represents the zephyrous vibes a majority of her music often emotes.

On the vocally eclipsing and skippy hook of the next track, "My High," the singer further experiences those effects, prompting her to reveal some oral pleasure desires over rhythmic drums and a quiet storm saxophone. Throughout the cut, Tinashe accesses her inner-falsetto, emphasizing the song's title with a faint, breathy high note, fulfilling a climatic realism to her commands.

The molasses-creeping transitions and lo-fi soundscapes that backbone In Case We Die not only introduced a distinguishable tone that the artist has since mastered, but also initiated her concept of riding along with the music for the purpose of habitual self-discovery. In the production, she experiments with distorted vocals and pandemonium-inducing instrumentals—her begging for "some vicious lovin'" on the jumbly "Another Season," while harmonizing some angelic "yeah's" in the background being one of the best examples.

In Case We Die successfully manages to place listeners in a universe filled with satellite noises and whooshing water interludes; Zimbabwean instruments, such as the mbira; xylophone cues, as if they were scaling up her spine pictured on the cover art; and pulsating vocal urgencies.

Halfway through a romp of sexual anthems such as "That" and "Boss," "Crossing The Cosmo" continues the mixtape's midtempo pace with a lite piano chord and a looping drum beat, masterfully mixing the sounds of her father's West African heritage into soul-searching R&B. As her vocal ad libs are both chilling and haunting while she describes a long-distance romance, Tinashe hurriedly promises "anywhere you go now I will follow, float away with you until tomorrow" in a gliding hook that reaches a specified goal of "Crossing The Cosmo."

Later in 2012, the singer released her second project Reverie. If In Case We Die should be held responsible for drafting the sound, then Reverie honed in on the constant concepts and motifs laced throughout her work. A bit more straightforward, and less avant-garde then the first project, Reverie's emphasis on lyricism offered a clearer insight into who Tinashe actually is—or, at least, what she stands for in life.

The titling of Reverie focuses on Tinashe's ability to get lost in her own thoughts, and to daydream about the possibility of capturing everything she wants. "Fear Not" commences the mixtape with a lecturer asking "What happens when life breaks down? When there is systemic contradiction?" before concluding with a man shouting "Trouble doesn't come from nowhere/Your weakness is a perfect match." On the mixtape's titular epicenter, she eerily proclaims "the truth will set you free" as if she is a knowing forebearer and astrological psychic. She makes it clear that she believes in manifest destiny and in guiding your actions to control your own success and voyages in life, a theme that would be revisited on Nightride's "Lucid Dreaming."

Tinashe often has a knack for titling songs as play-on riffs of what's transpiring musically on the track—analogous to "My High." On a similar chord and progression as time-ticking creepers such as Omarion's "Ice Box," Tinashe's "Slow" moves a bit below that speed, representing her "heart beat[ing] slowly." And while she was a bit innuendo-y with In Case We Die, playing the role of a temptress, naively lost in the throes of passion and heartbreak of young love, on Reverie she contains an innocuous bite to her choruses—none more evident than "Another Me," where she takes digs at her ex's rebound.

Reverie enhanced Tinashe's new-age jazz&B aesthetic from In Case We Die. "Ecstasy" remains a career highlight and appreciated gem amongst her fans, as it resembles sophisti-café-pop with a simplistic live, tailored beat and velvety vocals. Intergalactic sonics (with a bit of a trapped out, j-pop futurism) on Reverie added a bit more alternative R&B layering to her work, just as the subgenre was getting reworked 15 years after Janet Jackson released Velvet Rope. "Stargazing" places listeners in the Milky Way galaxy, as Tinashe references "love you long time" from Stanley Kubrick's 1987 film Full Metal Jacket.

On her third and fourth mixtapes, Black Water (2013) and Amethyst (2015), Tinashe not only flexed her versatility in the genre of R&B but also her nostalgic charm. If you want soulful R&B that recalls the 90s, look no further than these two records.

I was first introduced to Tinashe's music in winter 2013 when my mom picked me up from the airport during a holiday break from college. This would be a few months prior to "2 On" dropping in March 2014, before smashing that summer. Valuing my mom's every opinion about music more than any other expert's, I could tell my ears were about to experience something a bit intriguing. The first song she played was Black Water's "Stunt."

"Stunt" worked as the perfect introduction for Tinashe, as it was both captivating for its sample of Frank Duke's police-sirened "Cop Blood" and inspiring for its cunning lyricism. The motto Tinashe's best followed throughout her career lies in the chorus: "Just when they think they know me I switch up / And when they finally onto me I switch it up." In retrospect, the brooding song—which is actually about flipping the script on someone whose trying to "stunt" when they're "getting kinda comfortable" in a relationship—revealed that more vigor existed in Tinashe's personality and artistry. It clued us in on her go-with-the-flow attitude, which can be attributed to her Aquarius zodiac trait. Beginning with the lines "fuck your opinion / I don't need your approval," "Stunt" proved that Tinashe had been walking her talk, musically.

On Black Water, Tinashe's artistic growth is evident as her experimental instincts took on mature consistencies, aesthetically and vocally. That could be attributed to her echoed, sopranic-belting of "I've had enough of this music" on the two-stepping title track, signaling her eclectic sound had been possessed by the spirits of traditional R&B.

Black Water allowed for Tinashe to start breaking from herself in order to allow the ideas of iconic musical visionaries to help shape her sound. "Midnight" sun radiates Sade energy while tapping into Tinashe's falsetto and ethereal humming; "Just A Taste" samples Tony! Toni! Toné!'s "Anniversary;" "Fugitive" ends up playing like a mix of the 80s noir pop horror of Rockwell's "Somebody's Watching Me" meets Miami Vice.

And just as she had shown on In Case We Die's bonus cut, "Chainless"—which, in itself, is a Nintendo-infused bop starkly contrasting the mixtape's mood—"1 For Me" on Black Water revealed Tinashe wanted to venture back into her pop start. Pairing up with electronic producer Ryan Hemsworth, both artists tackle the sound of chillwave, a genre (otherwise known as glo-fi or hypnagogic pop) that harkens on the nostalgia of 80s/90s/aughts pop culture with a retro, Y2K feel. The whimsical cut samples British ambient band Frou Frou's "Let Go," a song included on the soundtrack of Zach Braff's 2004 romcom Garden State.

With her 2014 debut studio album, Aquarius, it took some time for some OG fans to appreciate the sharp contrast from the brooding R&B cuts closely resembling her underground work ("Aquarius," "Bet," "Far Side of the Moon") to the West Coast pop&B ("All Hands On Deck", "Feels Like Vegas," "Wild Fire") and aught-millennium-centric jaunts akin to Ashanti and Ciara ("Thug Cry," "2 On"). For those longing for her mixtape aesthetics post-Aquarius, the surprise gem Amethyst took a trip down 90s R&B lane. She channeled a trapped-out Aaliyah in "Something To Feel" and a g-funked Blackstreet on "Worth It." Sparkling like the purple birthstone of February, "Wanderer" embodies the Auto-Tuned cadences of Zapp, the forefathers of today's electro-R&B. In addition to its Zappvibes, the song also interpolates the lyric "watch your mouth, Jerome's in the house, watch your mouth" from Kanye West's "Bound 2"—a possible shout-out for him acknowledging her "All Hands On Deck" video.

The companionship of Nightride and Joyride expertly blend Tinashe's mixtape instincts with what could be musically relevant for today's climate. On Nightride, our sequential voyage in her mind and moody feelings happens on a hovering UFO as heard through the quiet storm effects of "Spacetime." Nightride saw the singer delving into futuristic neo-soul on "C'est La Vie" and "Sunburn" as she further examines her place in the industry and questions the motives behind "Soul Glitch." Her linkage with Metro Boomin on "Sacrifices" and "Party Favors" not only resembled a trap&B spin on her idol Britney Spears, but also displayed an advancement from the "Can't Say No" days.

The highlight of Nightride is the last track, "Ghetto Boy," a song featuring guitar work and the Rick Astley-esque melodies of Blood Orange's Dev Hynes—a key player in the Aquarius cut "Bet." The song beautifully juxtaposes adult contemporary elements of classic piano and soft rock guitar with the description of a faded love with someone afraid to be vulnerably in love.

Whenever I listen to Joyride, I can't help but to think that I had a minute role in steering the album's direction away from "Flame" so that the Nightride narrative could be continued. Underneath my burgundy sweater, I was wearing old fan merch, a shirt quoting Tinashe's lyrics: "Fuck Being Afraid" from "Can't Say No." I showed her, not only to break the tension of being interview by a relatively unknown reporter, but to also say: remember your musical roots. I explained to her how my mom introduced me to "Stunt," how I knew her mixtape work, and how Nightride pushed me further into the industry. Really appreciative of that conversation, I received dorky pictures geeking out as a fan (maybe I'd like a re-do and better lighting on that particular moment).

But Tinashe had not only furthered her Nightride saga in a more upbeat light on Joyride, she planted Easter eggs throughout the 13 tracks from all her bodies of work. The mob-like Travis Scott thump of "Joyride" contains a falsetto "don't stop looking at me," revisiting their menacing collab on Black Water-'s "Vulnerable". On the electro-hopping "He Don't Want It" and the woozy interlude "Ain't Good For Ya," she mentions getting "higher." "No Drama" turns the tables on the media who tried to "JFK [her]" as a "pop star AKA a problem," as she'd done on "Stunt." "Faded Love" waltzes with a xylophone; she hails her native West Coast summer vibes on "Ooh La La"; and bounces with her Zapp-effects on the smooth "No Contest."

I revel in this idea of Tinashe becoming this rare artifact in the music scene. I've come to accept that it's only meant for those who like music puzzles, and are willing to dig in the crates of understanding who she is: a mystery she's never going to outright solve. But it's never too late for anyone else to start, especially with new surprises in store.


More by Da'Shan Smith:

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