As the multi-hyphenate Harlem rose readies her third album, we talk ballrooms, motherhood and keeping that same energy for Notion 84!
It’s just days after Teyana Taylor has made her Coachella debut as part of Kanye West’s Sunday Service performance, playing to a 50’000 strong audience atop a miniature mountain on the festival grounds. Harlem born and raised Teyana has been in the business since she was just sixteen years old, but for many, it’s been her more recent association with Kanye & Co. which has thrust her into the mainstream consciousness.
Ahead of signing with Ye’s label, G.O.O.D. Music, Teyana had a couple of small features on his album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but perhaps the definitive moment where the world collectively asked ‘Who the fuck is Teyana Taylor?’ was her iconic dance performance in West’s 2016 video for “Fade”. In it, a jaw-droppingly statuesque Teyana pumps and thrusts amid a spotlit gym, covered in sweat, in a grey crop top and thong. Today the video has racked up almost 120 million views, and fans the world over have been quick to reference Flashdance, though to me the performance is completely it’s own; Teyana’s movements have their own personal brand of aggression and sexiness, pretty much incomparable to anyone other than her own idol, Janet Jackson.
“Janet and the ballroom scene are without a doubt two of the main reasons I am who I am,” the Harlem born star tells me, reminiscing of the era where she’d be snuck into New York’s underground LGBT ballroom dance competitions as a young teenager. “That’s where I felt accepted, that’s where I felt beautiful. That was everything. It taught me a lot about myself.”
The ballrooms, and their emphasis on movement and attitude imprinted on Teyana immeasurably. At just sixteen years old, Taylor was recruited to choreograph Beyonce’s video for “Ring The Alarm”. Shortly afterwards she signed to Pharrell’s Star Trak label, with whom she released a free mixtape, From A Planet Called Harlem, before getting her very own off the chain episode of MTV’s Super Sweet 16.
Her debut studio album, VII was released through Kanye’s label in 2014 to a positive reception, while it’s 2018 follow up, K.T.S.E (Keep That Same Energy) is full of old school Kanye flavours, but failed to properly provide a platform for Taylor’s immense potential. The record wasn’t without controversy, arriving as one of five albums rolled out over the course of five weeks, in an ambitious — if somewhat gimmicky — initiative spearheaded by Kanye, to ensure his artists (including the likes of Kid Cudi and Pusha T) dominated the sound of the summer.
K.T.S.E perfectly showcases the fiercely dynamic range of Taylor as an artist; she gives us ballroom fierceness in “WTP” (Work That Pussy), but shows her vulnerability throughout the album in piercing love songs that place her dreamy vocals at front and center of production. But, as part of Kanye’s rollout plan, the record would have no single releases and no accompanying visuals — something which Taylor was quoted as saying she was completely unaware of until the last moment, as well as the fact that multiple tracks had been cut. Despite this, the album found itself in many of 2018’s Album of the Year lists, and there was a clear appetite for more music from Teyana’s fanbase. For months she teased further releases and visuals around the album that never materialised, citing licensing and copyright issues relating to sampling as one of the reasons for the delay.
Despite the fact that she’d taken to Instagram to clear up the K.T.S.E confusion, writing “I LOVE MY ALBUM and never said that I didn’t [sic] AND BELIEVE IN MY ALBUM with all of me”, I wondered whether the drama surrounding the release had tainted the experience at all?
“Everything happens for a reason,” Taylor tells me, sounding somewhat jaded. “Shit happens. But I’m so past that. I’m just looking forward to moving forward and getting ready for the new album and what I have in store for that. I’m not even really harping on that stuff.”
The new record was announced via Elton John’s Beats1 show and is expected later this summer, much to the delight of the K.T.S.E Stans who had been waiting with baited breath for word about when they could finally hear the tracks that disappeared after the last release.
“One thing that’s never been a secret about my album, is that I felt that it was too short,” she says defiantly, when asked how the new music will differ from the last. “This new record is a continuation. It’s like a chapter two of K.T.S.E — a continuation of those tracks. K.T.S.E was an amazing album, and I feel hyped to keep on that sound because people wanted more.”
She’s not wrong. Twitter blew up in the wake of the news that Teyana wouldn’t be releasing an extended version of K.T.S.E last year. She responded to a fan’s question about where the longer cut of the album was by saying, “I guess we ain’t getting one”, followed by the shrug emoji, prompting her fanbase to suggest that she dump G.O.O.D. Music in pursuit of a new label.
I wondered how the noise of social media had affected her experience, and whether, as someone who’s been in the business so long, she felt it was largely a negative or positive experience on her process. “I definitely feel like its a curse and a blessing. It’s a bittersweet situation, like, it works to a certain point, and then in other ways it makes me wish that things were how they used to be. There are so many talented people who you wouldn’t normally get to see, who have broken through via social media. It’s a dope platform for people to share their art, but on the other side, there’ve always gotta be one or two people in the comments that want to tear people down.”
Beyond the seemingly unavoidable trolls, it’s always seemed that for a big artist like Teyana, the most depressing aspect of social media is the downright shallow numbers game it’s created. I tell her about the ways I often feel that I’m ushered around to meet the artists with the highest follower count, as opposed to the ones who actually have something to say. “Oh definitely,” she agrees, ‘‘everything is about followers. But that’s the thing, there might be a person who has five followers with more talent than someone who has half a million. The social media game works when it needs to work, but it can really also be the devil.”
Teyana approaches her own social media presence with a no holds barred spirit of intimacy. In December of last year, she posted a video to her 8.2 million followers of the 911 call her husband — professional NBA basketball player Iman Shumpert — made as he delivered their daughter into his own hands at the couple’s home (the couple star together in the VH1 reality show Teyana and Iman). Now three years old, Junie has been a source of infinite inspiration, Teyana tells me. “Motherhood actually made me work even harder. As a mother, you are living for something more than yourself. She inspires me to never give up… even when I feel like I can’t do it no more.”
The Teyana Taylor story so far has sometimes felt eclipsed by those very same people who have been such a big part of her journey. There’s no doubt that the influence of Kanye and Pharrell has helped shape the artist she is today, but beneath the endless associations and the contention around her releases, Teyana is a force in her own right. The ramblings in the Twittersphere about her workout routine, or her foray into reality television last year, have proven distracting trivialities that have pulled the focus away from her astounding talents as an artist and performer.
She takes the ups and downs in her stride, and is unwavering on the fact that her family comes before everything, but her next record is perhaps her most important yet; an opportunity for her to take the reigns back, and deliver on the uncompromising vision its clear to all of us that she has inside her. And if it is, as she teases, a sort of K.T.S.E 2.0, then it’s going to be incredible.