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Tkay Maidza had to push our interview back a week because her impacted wisdom teeth were flaring up…again. It’s the third time this has happened to her, each time worse than the last: the left side of her face swells up, she can’t eat, drink, or swallow, her ears clog, and she gets full-body sweats and chills. The first time it happened, the dentist told her she needed to get them extracted because they were “about to fully erupt.” But Maidza didn’t want to get them removed, so she decided to wait.

During a follow-up visit she was once again encouraged to have them taken out, but, convinced it was a mere financial ploy, Maidza refused on the principle of anti-capitalism. The Zimbabwe-born singer/rapper has Medicare in Adelaide, Australia, where she’s lived since she was a child, but it doesn’t cover dental work, which she sees as a bit of a scam. “I was like, ‘It’s been eight months since the last time it happened. I don’t think it’s going to happen ever again, and you guys just want me to pay like two thousand dollars,’” she says over a Zoom call from her apartment.

After receiving antibiotics following a second reaction, she was again pushed to have the teeth removed. “I was like, ‘Oh yeah, OK, maybe’,” the 23-year-old details. Still not convinced, she went out and partied over the weekend, felt immense pain the next day, and finally decided it might be time to schedule the surgery.

Maidza may be a bit stubborn, but not in a brash way; she just has her priorities straight. She’s focused on the promotion of her excellent new EP, Last Year Was Weird, Vol. 2, most of which she’s had to handle on her own from home due to restrictions caused by the pandemic. She’s taken the reins on her own styling, hair, and makeup for photoshoots, as well as even shooting the music video for her Kari Faux collaboration “Don’t Call Again” by herself (which featured six different outfits and wigs). Luckily she was prepared, thanks to the racks of clothes and shelves of wigs that fill her apartment. “She’s brown, a bit posh. She’s really heavy. I never wear her,” she says, laptop in one hand and each wig’s styrofoam head in the other, as she tours me through her collection.

Despite the unforeseen responsibilities and the fact that she could become overwhelmed with excruciating pain at any given moment, Tkay Maidza is actually quite chill on our call. She’s just gotten home from the gym to find out that the hyperreal video for her other ignoring-your-calls anthem “You Sad” (filmed safely in a studio post-lockdown) is her fastest-growing solo clip on YouTube to date. “The algorithm is loving it, apparently,” she quips. It’s the latest win in her plan for the Last Year Was Weird trilogy to re-launch her already-successful career. She first gained traction in her home territory with her 2013 debut single “Brontosaurus,” which was followed by the hits “Ghost” and “M.O.B.” off of her 2014 EP Switch Tape. The momentum garnered her some major collaborations with fellow-Aussie Troye Sivan, DJ Martin Solvig, and Killer Mike of Run the Jewels, eventually leading to the release of her debut album, the electropop-tinged Tkay, in 2016.

It was all a bit of a whirlwind for Maidza, who was then only 19. By the time she finished making the album, she no longer felt it represented her. She began to realize that her creative team may not have had her best interest at heart; they were more interested in scoring hits than honing in on her vision. Almost every track on Tkay was produced by a different person, which ran Maidza into a bit of a sonic identity crisis. She looked at her peers in the industry, the then-rising alt/R&B and rap artists like SZA, Kelela, Smino, and Saba, whom she felt had carved unique lanes for themselves, and wanted to do the same.

“When you look at artists like those, they seem like they just have their people that they work with, and they stick to it, and they just develop, and I think that’s how you grow,” she says. “I was like, ‘This speaks so much more to me in a deeper way. I feel like I can do this.’”

She decided to link up with producer Dan Farber, who produced Tkay’s “Castle in the Sky,” to discuss the right route to achieve her newly-realized artistic goals. “I had to hand in another album, but I just didn’t feel ready to do a second album,” she admits. “I asked if I could change it to three EPs, and supposedly when we get to the third one I should understand what I want to do for an album.”

So Maidza hired a new team (complete with four managers) and began working on the series of projects. Inspired by the tough, emotional year she endured following the release of Tkay, she decided to name the trilogy Last Year Was Weird. The first two installments explore themes of introspection, growth, and unapologetic confidence—”My ego bigger than the Mack truck,” she asserts on “24K.” With Farber as her main collaborator, she’s able to seamlessly weave through trap, house, and R&B sounds while remaining true to her artistic vision. Her goal is for listeners to finally “connect the dots” of her personality and artistry, but at the same time to create with no intention of pleasing anyone but herself.

“This is my own world, and if you’re willing to be a part of it, come along,” she says. “If not, I’m still going to be over here minding my business.”

Her vision for Last Year Was Weird goes further than just music; she wants it to exist as a brand. Since Vol. 1, she’s dropped limited batches of LYWW-branded merchandise with each new release and thrown pop-up events in Melbourne and Sydney, which she plans to expand worldwide once she’s no longer limited by the pandemic. She’d also love to make the “LYWW radio,” shouted out by a faux-announcer throughout the EP, a real station.

When I suggest that she may like capitalism a bit more than she thinks she does, she laughs. “I mean, it would be fun to design stuff and keep it for myself, but everyone around me is just like, ‘Why are you doing that?’” she explains, noting that she’s inspired by artists like Tyler, the Creator who have passionately curated brands that provide a sense of community. “It’s not like, ‘OK, cool, I want to get really rich.’ It’d be great to be really rich, but I want to create this world.”

It’s oddly (and unfortunately) fitting that as she’s rolled out the trilogy, the world has only gotten weirder—and that’s a vast understatement of the global distress caused by both the pandemic and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement. Maidza is personally thankful that she had the chance to go through her own personal and artistic journey prior to the hardships of 2020, because she’s not sure how she’d be handling it otherwise. “I think I had to go through that personal awakening in order to live a global awakening,” she says. “‘Cause I feel like, especially now, it seems a lot of people might look outwards and blame a lot of things, but they haven’t looked within yet, and they aren’t fully able to process what’s happening.”

As for whether or not the material on Vol. 3 is going to reflect the state of the world, Maidza would rather keep listeners immersed in the escapism of the LYWW universe. “I think if I am going to reflect on how weird the year is, or the experiences that I’ve gone through, it’ll be in an intro and an outro,” she says of the next project, which will start its launch later this year with a new single. “We have a cool feature on that one. It’s high energy, and it just makes sense right now.”

With the momentum the trilogy is already gathering, the vast amount of work she’s put in, and just how much talent she has to offer, her career is bound to soar to unfathomable heights. Considering that the project is headed in the same direction thematically, it’s quite the perfect timing. “The first EP was like, ‘Where am I?’ The second one is like, ‘I think I like it here, and I’m going to keep going,’ she details. “The third one’s kind of just like, ‘Alright, we’re ascending.’”

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photos / Alexandra Arnold

story / Jack Irvin

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