The night that the fourth nor’easter hit the East Coast in March, Tinashe was in Philadelphia, posting up at the Wells Fargo Center. “[I thought], ‘I’m out in Philly in a snowstorm — like, what am I doing here?’” she asks with a raised eyebrow the following morning, sipping a mimosa and lounging in a very un-11 a.m.-on-a-weekday ensemble: oversized faux fur, thigh-high red leather boots, long blonde tresses impeccably curled.
As Tinashe’s 2.2 million Instagram followers know, she was taking a brief break from promoting her upcoming, long-delayed second album, Joyride (out April 13), to watch her boyfriend, Philadelphia 76ers forward (and rookie of the year candidate) Ben Simmons. That night, the pair, who have been dating since late 2017, posted their first photo together, embracing after the game. “I have never, ever in my life posted a boy,” she says, and she’s not exaggerating: Though Tinashe is refreshingly honest and matter-of-fact this morning at New York’s Soho House, her social media feed is stylized and focused, a carefully curated string of dramatic photos of her, usually accompanied only by cryptic lyric snippets.
“It’s a natural part of my personality to keep a lot private and protected,” says the 25-year-old (born Tinashe Kachingwe). “And yeah, there can be a downside to that. People maybe feel they don’t know who I am. But at the same time, I’m not mad at the fact that the music comes first.”
That’s not just lip service: Since she first broke out in 2014 with the undeniable club groove “2 On,” which hit No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot R&B Songs chart and No. 24 on the Billboard Hot 100, Tinashe’s musical talent has always been the most striking thing about her. She’s an electric dancer who executes complex choreography like a Janet Jackson descendant, and her slinky voice and sexy-meets-street style elicited Aaliyah comparisons early on. But more than anything, she is a relentlessly hard worker who writes, produces and often engineers her own tracks, developing a signature haunting R&B sound epitomized on her assured 2014 debut, Aquarius, which hit the top 20 of the Billboard 200.
“She can write quickly and accurately over anything — and she’s a capital-P performer,” says artist-producer Dev Hynes, who collaborated with Tinashe on the standout Aquarius track “Bet.”
Yet despite the consistently high quality of her output and her ability to turn out both ultra-danceable jams (“All Hands on Deck”) and epic pop anthems (“Flame”), next-level pop stardom has eluded Tinashe. And at a moment when R&B’s most successful new female stars (SZA, Kehlani) are earthy and confessional, baring their lives in their lyrics and social media, Tinashe remains fairly opaque. “2 On” is still her highest-charting Hot 100 entry, and it’s one of only three of her tracks to hit that chart.
Now, after a three-year wait, she is finally about to release Joyride. With features from the likes of Future and Offset, it’s the most grounded in contemporary sounds of her work yet, while preserving the exquisitely layered vocals, sinuous rhythms and club-after-midnight vibe her fans have come to expect. “Along the way, a lot of people tried to get me to shift gears, start something fresh,” she says. “‘Forget Joyride. It didn’t really work, let’s just drop singles.’ But I’m the kind of person — when I start something, I’m committed all the way.”
While she has been private in the past, Tinashe has no filter today when it comes to the pains of putting the project out. There have been several incarnations of Joyride since 2015, when Tinashe first teased the release. “My fucking big mouth is going, ‘Oh, my album’s coming!’ Ha — psych! That’s a mistake I will never make again.” The album’s trouble started with its title track, co-written with Travis Scott and Hit-Boy. “I remember texting [Scott] like, ‘Yo, this is my shit, I want to name my album Joyride,’” she recalls. “Then he started dating Rihanna, and he kind of iced me out.”
Rihanna purchased the track for herself. “It messed up our relationship for a while,” says Tinashe of Scott. “I don’t think I spoke to him for six months. But I guess eventually she didn’t use the song, and I was like, ‘I still want it! Can I have it back?’” She brushes a long curl off her shoulder. “So I got it back, revamped it, took Travis off it, and now it’s a new day!”
Then there were the constant delays — so many that Tinashe ended up putting out a mixtape, Nightride, that included several songs originally intended for Joyride. She decided to do that after realizing the songs had an entirely different mood than what she had intended for Joyride. But at her label, RCA, where she says she has never clearly fit into the urban or pop departments, “it probably got lost in the sauce a little bit,” she says. “For people with maybe a little bit more clear direction, like Khalid or SZA who just got signed to the label, they’re like, ‘This makes sense, this is our urban department, we get this.’”
Tinashe, who got her start in girl group The Stunners alongside Hayley Kiyoko, always said, “I want to be a pop star. I love Britney Spears, Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera.” That her own version of pop came with a gloss of urban/R&B sounds “wasn’t confusing to me,” but making music that lived, genrewise, in “a gray area” made getting consistent radio play a struggle.
Now she’s more concerned with giving Joyride, a fully realized project, her attention. The album is a polished, coherent statement, even as it moves from uptempo dancehall (“Me So Bad,” featuring French Montana and Ty Dolla $ign) to otherworldly R&B (“Stuck With Me,” featuring Little Dragon) to piano balladry (“Fires and Flames”). So far, singles “No Drama” (featuring Offset) and “Faded Love” (featuring Future) have become modest hits on the Hot R&B Songs chart.
It’s a project she knows would never have emerged from purgatory without the determination that has been her calling card ever since her first mixtape. “There were definitely moments where I was like, ‘Fuck. This sucks. This is not going the way I wanted it to. This is embarrassing. I feel like a failure,’?” she says. “It’s not like you get an endless amount of shots at this. On the flip side, when we identified the first three singles, I was like, ‘OK, this is really real.’ It has been a huge weight off my shoulders. I’m not fighting for my life anymore.”