November 2016

Arts & Letters

A survival guide for outsiders

By Anwen Crawford
Australian hip-hop artist Tkay Maidza brings a lifetime on the move to her debut album, ‘Tkay’

Tkay, the debut album by Australian rapper and singer Tkay Maidza, has a bold disposition. Maidza pulls together elements of hip-hop, pop and contemporary dance music to create a soundscape that is lively but not fussy. The more you listen the more you find – percussive effects that seem to splinter and multiply, little riffs that glisten like fresh paint – yet the songs are immediate, their spirits easily fathomed. Maidza’s music is melodious, buoyant and youthful (she is 20 years old), and her sophisticated melding of international pop styles is unusual for an Australian artist. Audiences and artists alike are acutely aware of our distance from the rest of the world, which can leave even the ambitious feeling backward. Maidza, by contrast, seems happily attuned to the musical present, wherever it might be unfolding.

Born in Zimbabwe, Maidza emigrated to Australia with her family as a young child, living first in Western Australia and then in Whyalla and Adelaide. A gifted student, she was accelerated through school and had graduated by the time she was 16. She remembers performing for the first time to an extended family gathering of 50 or so people, but she had no formal musical training. “I’ve never had any singing lessons or anything, I just grew up listening to a lot of music,” she says, when we speak in October. Rappers Nicki Minaj and Kanye West were among her early influences.

Maidza’s first single, ‘Brontosaurus’, was released in 2013, when she was 17. The song was fast, insistent, borne along by a springy, synthesised bass riff and walloping percussion. “Stomp your feet like a brontosaurus,” instructed Maidza, sounding like the leader of a schoolyard dance. The song was picked up by Triple J, bringing Maidza to the attention of a national audience. An EP, Switch Tape, followed in 2014.

Tkay was recorded over the past 12 months, and often on the road, as Maidza toured the United States. American audiences were quick to pay her attention: in 2015 she played at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, which has often been a proving ground for new artists. More recently, in June of this year, she was nominated for Best New International Act at the annual BET (Black Entertainment Television) Awards, which honours African-American and other black diaspora achievers in arts and sports.

Maidza’s most prominent American champion has been the rapper and activist Killer Mike, who is one half of the New York–based hip-hop duo Run the Jewels. He first saw Maidza play when Run the Jewels toured Australia in the summer of 2014–15. During a talk at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology a few months later, he described Maidza as a “rising star”, and observed that while controversy swirled in the US around Australian rapper Iggy Azalea, who is white, “in Australia, those white people are jamming like hell to a black girl”.

In response, Maidza sent Mike a track that was “basically finished”, to which he added a guest verse. The song, ‘Carry On’, is now the lead single from Tkay. In the chorus, Maidza styles herself as a “ruthless ready renegade”, though her boast forms part of a well-established hip-hop tradition in which the newcomer asserts her prowess. Killer Mike plays the supportive big brother. “Baby, keep it cool, it’s the first day of school,” he raps. “Knowing you a rebel and about to break the rules.” The song is punctuated by the sound of wailing sirens, an old-school hip-hop trick.

Maidza has described her album as “a soundtrack to a high school girl’s life”. Asked to elaborate on this, she says that the album’s central character “is based on me, because I went to so many different high schools and had to start again”. Amid the cycles of upheaval came a confidence born of the realisation that “you don’t need anything, other than yourself”.

The self is something that Maidza appears to be both protective of and playful with. “This may be communism, but I tell you this is mine,” she raps on ‘Carry On’. The reference to communism, she explains, is a kind of shorthand, a warning to anyone who might want to “take what I have”, that being her own self-possession. But if the self is her starting point, then each new journey outwards from it is also a kind of reinvention, charted sonically through the sheer variety of styles that are part of Maidza’s work.

Maidza’s music recalls M.I.A.’s early albums (Arular, 2005, and Kala, 2007), and, like the English rapper and singer, her ear is transatlantic. ‘Switch Lanes’, the second single from Maidza’s EP, features the kind of syncopated drum programming common to the UK garage sound of late-1990s British dance music, while Maidza’s quick, clipped rapping recalls the style of MCs working within garage’s more contemporary offshoot, grime. (She names South London MC Novelist, who is 19 years old, and grime veteran Skepta, who won this year’s prestigious Mercury Prize, as being among her favourites.) ‘Always Been’, which opens Tkay, has her rapping not so much over as through a barrage of percussion, as if she were firing bullets from the other side of a rotating propeller. Her voice hurtles towards you. ‘State of Mind’, which comes later on the album, has Maidza switch between rapped verses and sung choruses, with a supple bassline and hi-hats rapidly moving around her.

But the album doesn’t always operate at this restless pace. ‘Simulation’ is more pop than rap, cushioned with synthesisers, while ‘Follow Me’ is reminiscent of Rihanna at her most melodious, creating a mood that is both optimistic and wistful.

Maidza draws a parallel between her experience of school and her recent life as a touring artist, frequently arriving in new places and playing to new audiences. It’s a circumstance she finds both exciting and frustrating. On the one hand, she says, “you don’t really have any expectations, and no one has any expectations of you”, but on the other, the constant starting over can feel like going around in circles. Her album, then, is her version of “a survival guide” for outsiders, a position she recognises as common to many.

She is less willing to be drawn on her ambitions, saying only that when she began writing music it was “for the sake of it, I didn’t really plan for anything to happen”. This may be so; it may also be that for an artist as young as Maidza, making music for oneself or for an audience is a distinction that hardly registers. Early experiments, circulated online, can rapidly find a listenership, as Maidza discovered with ‘Brontosaurus’, and the difference between local and international audiences – and collaborators – can quickly blur. The songs on Tkay involve a range of producers and co-songwriters, some Australian and some not (though most are, like Maidza, relative newcomers), and Maidza describes the ease with which these artistic connections can be forged. “There’s never just one way to do it,” she says, describing her songwriting process as a back-and-forth, “because the internet is big, and everyone’s able to travel a lot now.” As the internet continually expands the world itself seems to grow smaller; still, there is a quality to Maidza’s music – or rather an absence, the absence of the ersatz – that makes it striking when considered through the prism of Australian hip-hop, in particular, where local developments have often lagged behind the rest of the world.

“Who are you to ask me where I’ve been?” raps Maidza on ‘At Least’, the closing track to her album. Her singing voice is sampled and looped into a bubbling hook, as if the future, too, will be full of movement.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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