By Cyclone Wehner | purplesneakers.com.au
WHEN Tkay Maidza blew up a decade ago with the braggadocios banger Brontosaurus, she styled herself as a “brat rapper”. But in 2023, the Aussie is portraying a superhero, vanquishing personal villains. Indeed, as Maidza delivers her second album, Sweet Justice, she’s feeling vindicated, but also liberated. “I’ve come into my own,” Maidza declares. “I feel more confident about just how I move through the world now.”
In early 2021, after bunkering down in Adelaide with her parents during the pandemic, Australia’s Queen Of Hip-Hop left for Los Angeles. Here, surrounded by kindred spirits, she is thriving. Speaking on Zoom, Maidza has acquired a Valley Girl accent with rising intonation. The witty rapper-cum-singer often refers to herself in the third person but, as on social media, she’s genuine, relatable and amiable. Like Kylie Minogue, Maidza is adored at home.
Maidza holds that relocating to California was necessary for adulting as much as to progress professionally – the star previously flying “back and forth” between Australia and the US. The experience has changed her outlook and brought fresh opportunities. However, even in LA, Maidza has had to extricate herself from imposing music industry-types and toxic relationships.
“I feel like, when I moved here, I didn’t have the right friends around me. So I spent six months where I didn’t really write any music. I was just trying to get healthy, find balance, and I was going out and going to parties a lot.
“I just developed this new sense of the way I could communicate with people. I felt more confident in my abilities to network and just make new friends. Once that felt better, and I loved the people I was spending time with, I just felt balanced. It kind of unlocked a new me. I felt more excited to work on the album at that point. But it just took me going out and hanging out with people and trying to find my tribe for me to feel confident in myself.”
Born in Zimbabwe, Takudzwa “Tkay” Maidza migrated to Australia at five, her parents both scientists in the mining field. Still, she was always exposed to music: Dad gigged in bands and the late Zimbabwean music legend Andy Brown is her uncle. (Curiously, Brown was in a group with Rozalla Miller – who, heading to Britain, re-emerged as the ’90s dance diva, issuing Everybody’s Free (To Feel Good), Maidza not fully aware of the connection.)
Settling in Adelaide, Maidza initially had a zeal for tennis and contemplated a pro vocation. But, in her mid-teens, the digital kid began to pursue another passion, hip-hop – posting covers to YouTube. Maidza enrolled in a programme for young music-makers, cutting 2013’s ravey break-out Brontosaurus with local producer BadCop and uploading it to triple j’s Unearthed platform. The following year Maidza played Splendour In The Grass and released the Switch Tape EP via Dew Process, culminating in her premiere TheMusic cover story.
The quietly ambitious Maidza has since amassed an impressive catalogue. While she perceives herself as “an outsider” in the Australian hip-hop movement, Maidza is hailed a gamechanger, challenging male domination and phasing in bold individualism and experimentation.
In 2016 Maidza presented her now cult debut album, TKAY – led by the alleyway heater Carry On, featuring an early patron, Run The Jewels‘ Killer Mike. Mind, the perfectionist soon expressed dissatisfaction with it. “The first album, it was almost like I was practising,” she says. “The reason why I probably wasn’t happy was because I knew that I could do better. I just hadn’t had the time to develop my skills.”
Disillusioned, Maidza resolved to reclaim control of her career, switching personnel. “I had a lot of doubts in my mind, especially with my old team just being like, ‘It’s not gonna get better than this if you leave us’ – and it actually did.” She’s evolved into a multi-faceted artist: an MC, singer, auteur and cultural aesthete.
Maidza embraced art-rap with imaginative concepts, innovative sonics, and curated guests. In 2018, she rolled out the first volume in her Last Year Was Weird (LYWW) EP trilogy – as much about sensibility as genre, with hyper-nostalgic visuals. Maidza freely explored trap, EDM, R&B, neo-soul and psychedelia. But she also revealed emotional depth.
In 2020 Maidza announced a new deal with 4AD – the fabled UK label equated with alt-rock, though Floridian cloud rapper SpaceGhostPurrp was briefly on its roster. Her charged comeback single, Shook, was subsequently synced for the Inventing Anna mini-series about fake Russian heiress Anna Delvey. Anthony Fantano named LYWW2 as The Needle Drop’s “Best EP Of 2020”. Maidza then scored her inaugural ARIA (Best Soul/R&B Release) with the avant-garde LYWW3. “Working on the EPs gave me a newfound sense of confidence, because I felt like I was making the exact music that I wanted to and it was at the quality that I saw myself writing.”
Sweet Justice is a celebration of self-actualisation – Maidza dispelling youthful diffidence as she rages on the resounding Ring-a-Ling. “Going into this album, if anything, it just felt like a homecoming. I didn’t really have any questions to ask myself anymore. It was just kind of like, ‘Let’s do it; we can do it – you have the skills now. There’s nothing to question anymore.’ So I think that’s just the difference. The fun energy is still there, but I’m accepting it now, as opposed to treating it like a burden of, ‘I don’t know what to do with myself.’” She created purposefully yet instinctively. “Honestly, every song I was surprised – I definitely would come out of the studio being like, ‘I didn’t know I had that in me.’”
In addition to working alongside her regular cohort Dan Farber, Maidza liaised with new producers: Flume plus Canadians KAYTRANADA, Billboard (Ariana Grande, Madonna) and Stint (Gallant, NAO, MØ). Symbolically, she reunites with Duckwrth on Gone To The West – the Cali MC last blessing Flexin’ from LYWW1.
A label presser states that Sweet Justice “isn’t a revenge album, but it does stem from a profound sense of karma,” a defiant Maidza bouncing back from various break-ups. In fact, she has frequently shaded anonymous saboteurs and detractors in her music. But Maidza transforms anger, or anxiety, into something empowering and positive, even mischievous.
“I think that’s always been my ethos – my music is about overcoming things,” she reflects. “So I felt like, when I first started writing the album, I was going through a lot of grief – like heartache, losing old friends – and a lot of the songs were from the perspective of, ‘Oh my God, everyone always leaves and nothing’s working.’
“When I took that six months to just reconstruct my brain, I was like, ‘I can talk about this stuff,’ but it’s not about like, ‘Damn, I’m hurt,’ it’s more so ‘I got over it.’ And so it kind of felt like a diary for me on a journey of healing and just a way for me to channel my emotions, but to encourage the next day and the next moment, as opposed to being depressed!”
As early as 2016 Maidza generated international buzz, receiving a nomination for the BET Awards’ Viewers’ Choice: Best New International Act award – and she currently belongs to a wave of Australian acts exploding in the US that includes The Kid LAROI, Flume and Troye Sivan. (Coincidentally, Maidza graced Sivan’s smash debut Blue Neighbourhood). She believes that having visibility and presence Stateside is important.
“I think there’s a power of being in the scene and, the more people see you out, the more they can really connect with the fact that you’re a real human,” Maidza says. “So, even seeing Troye out a lot, I think it just further cements that you’re a real musician and you’re here for real – it really makes a big difference. It ends up translating in other ways as well after you establish yourself as a personality and a character.”
Flume produced Silent Assassin – the lead single from Sweet Justice and a throwback to animated Y2K rappers Busta Rhymes and Missy Elliott. Auspiciously, it’s up for an ARIA – again Best Hip Hop/Rap Release. Maidza and Flume had astonishingly never met prior to the session, but they instantly clicked. “He’s really funny and awkward,” Maidza confides fondly. “It’s a funny dynamic between me and him, because I’m kind of silly and outwardly extroverted in that way. So I feel like he finds it amusing to just see the way my brain works.” The two socialise, Flume lately inviting Maidza to a barbecue.
Nevertheless, Maidza discloses that “nosy” former associates suggested that she was “wasting time” recording with Flume when her sophomore was the focus. “I would say back to them like, ‘I am working on my album and you just don’t know what I’m doing ’cause it’s none of your business anymore.’” Ironically, those meddlers inspired Silent Assassin‘s stealthy lyrics. “I’m secretly always doing something but whether you know it or not is the big difference.” Maidza is “excited”, too, to have the banger to perform live.
Maidza has long fused hip-hop and house, reinventing the club diva. In 2016 the star had a global hit with French don Martin Solveig, Do It Right, and she recently featured on Snakehips‘ Show Me The Money. “I feel like it took the last eight years of me figuring out that I can do dance music, but I just have to be confident in it – whereas before I was like, ‘Oh, now I’m doing this, now I’m doing that’ and everyone was like, ‘What genre do you make?’ But now it’s like, ‘No, Tkay has her own vibe.’ I’m unapologetic about it now, as opposed to feeling like I’m being pulled in so many different directions.”
Maidza’s greatest coup? For Sweet Justice she has collaborated with KAYTRANADA – the Grammy-winner producing the groovy Ghost! and Our Way. The rapper describes the hook up as “really sick,” KAYTRA influencing her earlier bop 24K. Notably, “TKAYTRANADA”, as she’s called their partnership, wasn’t orchestrated by an A&R but happened organically.
“I met [KAYTRANADA] a couple of times at parties at, like, 1am – we’d run into each other. I’m like, ‘Yo, what’s up?’ He’s like, ‘Oh, it’s Tkay again, from Australia.’ And I’m like, ‘That’s me. We should work soon!’”
The pair eventually entered the studio. “When people see you as a friend, and someone who’s chill, it’s so much easier to work with them because they don’t have to protect themselves. They don’t think you wanna take something from them… As soon as I met him, I was like, ‘Don’t worry, I’m not psycho,’ and he’s like, ‘Oh, you’re actually funny!’”
Sweet Justice encompasses Maidza’s most intimate number – about her shedding romantic naivety. “I really love Love Again – that’s probably one that I listened to a lot, mainly because it’s really sad, but there’s something beautiful about it. I wrote it being like, ‘I’m never going to love anything or anyone ever again’ and six months later I met the love of my life. So it’s just an interesting story, having that song and realising there’s always someone around the corner and you don’t know it.”
Over the past two years Maidza has toured with some of the biggest female identities in popdom: Billie Eilish, Dua Lipa and Lizzo. Today women are defining music, every Beyoncé and Taylor Swift project a cultural event. Even in rap, women have mounted a takeover – with Ice Spice the latest mega-star. Yet Maidza has penned the compelling Won One as a rejoinder to misogynists in the industry, spitting, “You playing games on the low go, but you ain’t won one, no.” Are women in music collectively savouring sweet justice?
“For so long, women have generally been the front leaders, but there wasn’t the sense of respect that a lot of them could be at the forefront at the same time,” Maidza asserts. “I think we just all collectively were like, ‘If you really want to benefit from us, you have to treat us like you treat your parents – or your sister.’ So it’s like this sense of pride and confidence that the whole community has, which is really cool and makes it a safer space, too.”
These days Maidza is courted by the US celebrity title People and fashion magazines alike. Consciously cultivating an iconic image, she latterly attended Milan Fashion Week as a guest of the Italian denim brand Diesel. “It’s so different to music,” she observes of fashion. “It’s so important who you wear and what you wear and what you post – they really care about that stuff.”
Maidza still follows tennis – the US Tennis Channel typically airing in the background at home. But she doesn’t have imaginary Sliding Doors moments. Maidza now enjoys tourneys as entertainment – and is a fan of US Open winner Coco Gauff. “I will always champion [Frenchman] Gaël Monfils – he’s my favourite player, since I was playing as well.” The Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz is, akin to Rafael Nadal, “almost too perfect,” she maintains. “There’s something rigid about him.” Maidza is attracted to the game’s personalities. “I just really love big characters – like even Nick Kyrgios, he’s really funny to watch.”
Borders reopening, Maidza has successively returned to Australia – headlining the Sydney Opera House with Vivid in 2022 and joining Splendour in July (passing by triple j to cover SZA‘s darkly subversive Kill Bill for Like A Version). She just had a pop-up show at SXSW Sydney.
Next month Maidza will hit Spilt Milk and perform standalone concerts with her band. “I’m excited to play new music,” she enthuses. “It’s been probably two years since I’ve added new music into my set… So I can’t wait for everyone to see the new show.”
But Maidza is already plotting. “Another album would be fun,” she hints. “I’m working on new music at the moment – so the idea is to keep it moving.” In May KAYTRA dropped an album with Aminé as KAYTRAMINÉ – could TKAYTRANADA do something similar? “That’d be really cool,” Maidza pauses, “or a joint album with Flume.” Furtive as ever.
Tkay Maidza’s second album, Sweet Justice, is out Friday November 3 via 4AD / Dew Process.