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Tink: one in a million

Tink: one in a million

According to Timbaland, Tink is the natural heir to Aaliyah’s throne. But can she handle the pressure? We witness the birth of a new R&B princess

Taken from the summer 2015 issue of Dazed:

What would you do if someone told a room full of strangers that Aaliyah had blessed your career from the afterlife? That’s the situation rising hip hop sensation Tink found herself in at SXSW in March, when Timbaland revealed how the late R&B princess had come to him in a dream. “She spoke to me and said, ‘She’s the one,’” the music mogul told the Austin crowd, pointing at the 20-year-old after she’d put a new twist on his classic Aaliyah production “One in a Million”.

“It’s almost like a head-nod from above,” says Tink when we meet in a Brooklyn photo studio a few weeks after the show, apparently unfazed by the supernatural acclaim. Clad in baggy jumper and jeans, the petite 20-year-old looks more like the girl you sat next to in art class than an artist on the fast track to superstardom. “Tim had mentioned (his dream) to me before, so I understood where he was coming from. It’s not like he’s babbling, he really feels strongly about it. But I knew it was gonna hit people a certain way.”

Despite the grounded talk, Tink’s feet have barely touched the tarmac lately. She released a video for her first official single, “Ratchet Commandments”, which saw her presiding over an army of dancers in Egyptian goddess-inspired threads fit for Hatshepsut, and put out that Aaliyah remix, “Million”. A gruelling round of press commitments meant her recent birthday celebrations were confined to a “private dinner for me and my team”. But for all the unfolding madness (Timbaland is executive-producing her debut album, due this summer), Tink is exactly where she needs to be right now.

A mixtape star since she was barely out of junior high, Trinity Home turned heads as a breakneck rap talent at 15, when her brother uploaded a video of her freestyling over Clipse’s “Grindin’” to Facebook. After the clip caused ripples on the Chicago scene, she adopted the nickname friends had coined as a contraction of her birth name, Tink, and started home-recording tracks in her parents’ basement in Calumet City (her dad, who produces for local Chi-town acts, helped out on mixing duties).

Her first tape, Winter’s Diary, was packed with tender, assured ballads that showcased her stunning voice, honed over years of practice at church with her gospel singer mum. Then, she flipped it with follow-up Alter Ego, spitting over rapid-fire beats in a reminder that, while Tink may be young and preternaturally sweet-voiced, fuck with her once and you stand zero chance of walking away unscathed: “Thought you could only do R&B / No, sweetie, I can spit, too / Probably harder than ya nigga do.”

Another three mixtapes followed, and a single with Jeremih, “Don’t Tell Nobody”, which caught Timbaland’s ear and led her to sign with Epic via his Mosley Music imprint. Perhaps it’s Tink’s multifaceted approach that has allowed her to defy hip hop’s tendency to pigeonhole its female players into simplistic, one-dimensional roles. “I really feel like females have to go 50 extra miles,” she says of industry double-standards. “Not just one – 50 extra miles to be accepted or taken seriously. And that shit’s not cool. I can speak for myself. I know for a fact I’ve put in the same amount of hours as every up-and-coming male rapper right now, if not more. I’m a feminist with regard to my music and the music industry.”

“If the outfit is cool and I like my video, I don’t give a fuck what anyone else says” – Tink

From the outset, Tink seemed cut from a different cloth than tatted-up Chicago femcees like Sasha Go Hard or Katie Got Bandz, with lyrics that were a world away from rhymes that focus on getting green and stashing guns. Sure, she had her pugnacious moments on tracks like “Money Money”, but it was on heartfelt songs such as “Treat Me Like Somebody” (from 2014’s Winter’s Diary 2), where she really found her voice. With a candid take on teen troubles, she deftly tapped into the emotional lives of girls her own age, who aren’t often spoken to in hip hop. She recalls one fan from her hometown, a depressed young girl whose family put her in a psychiatric ward: “She was a big fan of my music, and somehow it got back to me. My mom was telling me about how this girl wanted to die, and I was like, ‘I want to write her. I want to send her a card.’ I wrote a long message. I gave her words of encouragement. It got to her and she was saying, ‘If it wasn’t for Tink sending me that card, I wouldn’t want to live.’” She trails off for a second, still shaken by the story. “It hit me deep. It was like, ‘Who am I to be someone’s reason to want to live?’ It meant a lot.”

Tink’s passion for empowering other young females extends to the art, too: perhaps the most inventive of her numerous collaborations have been with women, ranging from one-off collabs with stomping pop-rock duo Sleigh Bells to guest spots on tracks by rappers Junglepussy and Sasha Go Hard, the latter of whom recalls Tink bringing a humble creative energy to their recording session. “We talked and took pictures and just chilled,” says Sasha of working with the then-upstart. “It was cool. No fake stuff. If you have a personal relationship with a female, it’ll be easier and more real to do a song.”

“I was taken aback by her talent,” says avant-electronic producer Fatima Al Qadiri of the collaboration between Tink and her group, Future Brown. “Writing and completely finishing lyrics and vocals from scratch for two songs in six hours, nailing everything in that window of time – I’ve never seen that before.” She recalls a moment in the studio that perfectly sums up Tink’s precocious powers: “She had just finished recording a vocal and Asma (Maroof, Future Brown member) screamed with uncontrollable joy. She was crazed with happiness and just had to let it out. It was adorable. That’s exactly how we all felt inside.”

Tink’s best verses find ways to subvert typical rap fare. On “Ratchet Commandments”, she jumps from sneering at the fathers who can’t hold down a job to calling out her peers for their Instagram thirst: “We act belligerent / Generation of ignorance / Bitches live for the ’Gram so they life ain’t got no significance”. And it’s not just braggadocious bluster: she has been thinking hard lately about how technology impacts the way that young women grow up. “I know for a fact that a lot of females look for validation on social media,” she says. “It has something to do with self- esteem, and that’s painful to even think about. Who are we trying to impress? Is it our family? Ourselves?” She admits that she also used to be a social networking obsessive, but has since grown past it. “Four years ago, social media was just everything to me. It was my validation,” she says. “But now, if I like something or if I feel like the outfit is cool and I like my video, I don’t give a fuck what anyone says on my comments.”

It’s a healthy outlook, especially as her career threatens to go supernova. Although Tink isn’t a household name just yet, she’s undoubtedly on her way, with the queen of rap herself Missy Elliott slated to appear on her debut full-length, Think Tink. “I have a purpose now,” she says. “When I was young and first rapping, I was just trying to get recognition for my city. But now more people are listening. I know my audience has changed. It’s not just Chicago.” Tink’s broader reach has made her pay close attention to the kind of message she puts out into the world. “When people think of Tink, they don’t just think about any old thing. It’s more like, ‘What’s she gonna say next? What’s the issue at hand?’ It’s changed a lot. I’ve grown and matured. When I was a kid I was just having fun, being sarcastic with my music. I didn’t really give a fuck. But now I have to be mindful.”

Later, as we ride back to Manhattan with her team, Tink hooks up her iPhone to the SUV’s Bluetooth and takes over the soundsystem. She cycles through tracks that sound like a list of predecessors to her own music: the hard-nosed bluster of Biggie and Lil’ Kim, the polished, brooding production values of Drake and Nicki, the lilting harmonies of TLC. Her assistant starts dancing in her seat and Tink joins in, too, untroubled by industry bullshit, label meetings and photo shoots for a moment. She rolls down her window, letting the breeze roll through the car as it passes over the Brooklyn Bridge, and starts to sing along. Her voice soars above the sound of rush hour traffic, breathing new life into old classics – just as Timbaland proclaimed she could.

hair Giselle Modeste at Epiphany; make-up Lucky Smyler at Epiphany; nails Madeline Poole at Bridge using Sally Hansen; photographic assistant Rémi Lamandé; styling assistant Alison Isbell

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