Last Saturday, Tinashe came onstage with four backup dancers and a few costume changes — bra, drawstring jeans, and a robe; red thigh-high boots with matching lingerie — pounding through tracks from her mixtapes and studio debut, Aquarius, as well as Joyride, the still unreleased follow-up. Webster Hall had sold out, but she seemed prepared for ten times the venue’s capacity. “It feels like the community-theater version of an arena pop tour,” said a friend, his head bobbing steadily anyway. “I want to see her hair blowing, not the fans blowing her hair.”
The effect was like standing too close to someone in stage makeup; we had to relax our eyes to let all that effort recede into the background. But Tinashe Kachingwe is a crowd-pleaser; she’s been honing the skill her whole life. After she ended her set in a frenzy of smoke-machine puffs, drum fills, and red Solo cups, the crowd howled and chanted for “2 On,” her biggest hit to date, a DJ Mustard–produced anthem for the pregame (“Pour it on up till I can’t even think no more”). They didn’t have to chant for long.
As a child Tinashe acted: Her first onscreen role was in Cora Unashamed, at age seven; she had a recurring spot on Two and a Half Men. She’s been dancing since she was four, wrote her first song at six, and at fourteen joined a girl group called the Stunners. After the band split up in 2011, she recorded three acclaimed mixtapes — In Case We Die, Reverie, and Black Water — from the studio she’d set up in her bedroom. Aquarius followed in 2014, released via RCA, and then came a fourth mixtape, Amethyst. She’s toured with Nicki Minaj and Katy Perry, and in the past year she’s been on the cover of Dazed, V magazine, and Complex, where Michael Arceneaux called her “as close to Janet Jackson as we’ll ever get” (indeed, Tinashe pulled off a stunning dance tribute to Janet at last year’s B.E.T. Awards, with Ciara and Jason Derulo).
Joyride, which might hoist her to unqualified stardom, has been getting hyped up and pushed back for months. But while few artists deserve to be the Big Thing more than Tinashe does, she’s been the Next Big Thing for a few years now. Her music is truly great, not only for loudspeakers but for headphones: dreamy, faceted, auteur R&B, primed for the pop charts even as it issues from its own inimitable world. And she works hard — all pop stars and aspiring pop stars do, but Tinashe, a self-described overachiever, sings, dances, acts, writes, produces, and holds a black belt in tae kwon do. “Sometimes I think I’m missing out on things I’m supposed to go through,” she sings on “Just the Way I Like You,” from Amethyst. “Guess that’s sacrifices when you trying to take over at 22.”
Tinashe lives at home with her parents and two brothers in Los Angeles. She’s organized her life for creative and professional success while avoiding the stuff of intrigue (she might sing about sex, drugs, and the rest, but it’s just part of the show). Her persona is kind of muted. She doesn’t perform some idea of glamour, or discord, or oddball genius, any narrative extras that season a pop star. She just delivers.
Another thing pop stars tend to have is sprezzatura. Not Tinashe. She lets the work show. Flanked by her dancers, her show dazzled with effort, although on her own she seemed to smile more genuinely and soar along her high notes, which were enough. The audience sang along, sometimes at her prompting, and, after she’d drawn out the last verse of her encore and taken her bow, roared with affection.
There’s a tinge of pathos in her presentation, only because of the gap between how she’s positioned and where she’s at — that “community theater” thing. In a relatively intimate venue, the extravagance of her stage show felt generous but a little painful, the way it does when someone goes all out. It can be hard to watch somebody try so hard. Tinashe is waiting to fly from the rung she’s perched on, and you can feel that restlessness secondhand.
There is nothing wrong with being a cult artist — some of the very best are — but these days it’s rare for a musician to aspire to cult status. We tend to equate success with merit — and it’s true that some of the most successful artists are also the best (Beyoncé, Nicki, Rihanna), but some of the best artists just miss megastardom (Ashanti, Janelle Monáe) or live happily elsewhere (Carly Rae Jepsen, FKA twigs). There’s an astonishing abundance of talent on the rise but a limited number of slots for superstardom, without a whole lot of middle ground on which to make a living. Just building a fan base, with no guarantee of compensation or credit, requires a phenomenal amount of work. There’s no reason Tinashe shouldn’t blast full steam ahead to the top, but she’s too good, and too singular, to be all or nothing. Still, her act felt awkward in context, a little squished by the confines of Webster Hall, small enough to show the strings.
But, as with community theater, there’s joy in watching someone becoming, and in suspending your disbelief. We expect our pop stars to be upfront about their ambitions and, in a manicured way, to show their work. Falling in love with an artist means investing in their success; trajectory is part of the show. But we’re so used to talking about pop stardom in retrospect, an artistic fait accompli, that we end up missing what’s before our eyes. They were amazing, but no one cared, you’ll often hear; not you should care because they’re amazing. But, whatever. We should care about Tinashe because she’s amazing.