South Africa’s Ambitious Amapiano Hitmaker Tyla Makes Her Bid For Pop Superstardom

Jeremy Soma

South Africa’s Ambitious Amapiano Hitmaker Tyla Makes Her Bid For Pop Superstardom

Jeremy Soma

The first thing to know about Tyla, Johannesburg’s biggest pop ingenue, is that she has had at least one literal dream about her Spotify numbers going up. The second thing is that she’s proud of that fact. She is strikingly direct about her ambitions, and she consciously (and apparently, subconsciously!) goes about them with the focus of a guided missile.

The hypnotic “Getting Late,” featuring producer Kooldrink, got Tyla noticed on the South African scene and caught the attention of afrobeats curators, as well as Epic Records. Then last year’s slinky breakout hit “Water,” written with Tricky Stewart, made her massive around the globe. The firsts keep coming: first Grammy for Best African Music Performance, first South African artist to crack Billboard‘s Hot 100 since Hugh Masekela’s #1 hit “Grazing In The Grass” – from 1968. And Tyla was absolutely purposeful about attaining all of this. “I want to be Africa’s first pop star,” she told her manager in their first meeting; she’s said similar things in almost all of the myriad interviews she’s done lately. Every one of them is a showcase of the starmaking skillset that she’s cultivated deliberately throughout her whole life. (Among that skillset is the art of giving great quote; after “Water” blew up, she amusedly noted the journalistic tic of “saying in headlines ‘Tyla of Water,’ like I’m The Last Airbender.”)

Throughout all this, Tyla has presented herself as something of a one-woman ambassador for the South African dance subgenre amapiano. The genre – Zulu for “the pianos” – has also had a whirlwind few years, blowing up first in wider Africa and then around the world. Amapiano’s boundaries are loose and amorphous, subsuming into its groove both broader afrobeats sounds and earlier South African genres like kwaito – contemporaneous with Frankie Knuckles-era deep house, and more overtly inspired by it – and the darker, clubbier gqom. But two elements run through most amapiano songs: percussive log drums and an apotheosis of vibes. In an interview with NPR, Sudanese producer DJ Moma nailed the latter: “There’s this mood of melancholy that permeates the music. There’s a lot of minor chords…. But in a weird way, it’s also uplifting because minor chords, when you put them together–they’re the most beautiful.”

While Tyla is quick to mention her pride in her local roots, her sights are equally set in the realm of pop-pop. Like many aspiring musicians, she started her career posting Justin Bieber covers on social media and DMing them to anyone who might respond. She frequently calls Rihanna career goals – both for her sound and for her role of unofficial musical representative of Barbados. One also hears the breathy vox of Aaliyah – another artist Tyla grew up with – and the starlet coquetry of Ariana Grande. Her move into amapiano came later, as the genre was getting big. “Getting Late” was Tyla’s proof-of-concept for “popiano” – more purposeful self-branding – adding to the mix such things as hooks and vocals. (Like its dance-music predecessors, amapiano in its original form is not particularly vocal-forward.) “Water” demonstrated that this fusion had massive crossover potential, and American R&B artists are already rushing in to showcase and/or trendjack that sound. (Drake, characteristically, moved in last year.)

But pop and amapiano are not as obviously simpatico as the streaming numbers suggest. How does one adapt a genre that’s built, as Tyla told NME, on “five minutes and just vibes,” to a genre built on four minutes tops of structured melodic math? For the most part, Tyla’s self-titled debut doesn’t. The poppiest thing about Tyla isn’t the sound but the runlengths: Nothing cracks the three-and-a-half-minute mark. Most of the album was made with the producer of “Water,” British-Ghanaian artist Sammy SoSo, and only three tracks sound like crossover potential was on the agenda.

One of them, the pillowy “Butterflies,” was produced by Renaissance writer Ari PenSmith and producer Sir Nolan, an industry journeyman whose resume is a playlist of oh-right-that-track singles: Nick Jonas’ “Jealous” and Fifth Harmony’s “All in My Head (Flex).” (I would be wildly remiss in my role as pop columnist to not mention that Sir Nolan also produced “Cut To The Feeling.”) Tyla performs “Butterflies” well, but you can tell it wasn’t originally written for her. “On My Body,” with a half-Spanish verse by Becky G, is a clear (albeit subdued) play for the Latin market. The first full track on the album, “Safer,” is Tyla’s best execution of her popiano vision. Its groove is close to “Water,” but with a few rhythmic tweaks, the topline could easily fit the kind of 4/4 electro-throb Max Martin is known to produce. The draw, though, isn’t the hooks but the moods: The amapiano melancholy is the perfect sonic conduit for the seductive danger Tyla sings about.

The rest of Tyla – to its credit – sounds largely unbothered by crossover expectations, even ambivalent about them. (Sometimes this ambivalence comes out in the music; “Truth Or Dare,” about how fame inevitably infuses any potential romance with parasocial fixation, is reminiscent of a song by another then-ingenue, Beyoncé’s “Hip Hop Star.”) Much of the album could flow seamlessly into “Water,” like one endless amapiano flow made up of individual pop tributaries. There’s a tradeoff, though: In her pursuit of this rarefied vibe, Tyla avoids any garish attempts at airplay but also sacrifices the direct, electric charge of older amapiano tracks, or even of “Getting Late.”

“On And On” is indicative: a song about partying all night that sounds like Tyla has no plans to leave the chillout room. Meanwhile, “ART” is artpop at its most literal, Tyla casting herself as both artist’s muse and on-canvas creation – and if there’s one thing paintings don’t do, it’s hit the dance floor. (Art historians confirm/deny.) All that said, a choice with tradeoffs is at least a deliberate choice. Tyla sounds like it’s pretty close to the exact album Tyla envisioned, which is quite a feat for a debut pop or R&B star. And she occasionally loosens up a bit: teasingly asking to “hit that Cha Cha Slide real quick” on “On My Body,” or letting out her swagger and her brighter vocal register on “Jump” as guest rapper Gunna keeps up the energy. She has poise and playfulness – all the better to achieve her stream dreams.


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ily montreal 💟

♬ original sound – Stanley Martin

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