Teyana Taylor feels “young again,” which is odd to hear coming from a 21-year-old, but considering how hectic the last six years have been for her, it makes sense.
At 15, Taylor was signed to Pharrell Williams’ Star Trak imprint under Interscope and though the experience featured some highs—a few singles being released from an eventually shelved debut album—the end goal was never achieved.
Now things are looking good for the Harlem artist. She’s parted ways with Interscope and recently signed on with Def Jam’s motley crew, the Kanye West-led G.O.O.D. Music.
The multi-talented First Lady checked in with Complex to talk about how her tomboy swag changed the game, how humming around Mr. West got her on his My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and her squad’s forthcoming Cruel Summer album.
Interview by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
Complex: How did you first meet Kanye West?
Teyana Taylor: At his Glow in the Dark tour with him, N.E.R.D. and Rihanna. At the time I was signed to Pharrell Williams and his Star Trak label. Kanye used to always like my outfits. So from jump we became fashion friends and we’d talk about different clothes and designing different things. We’d email each other different garments that we liked. That’s how we became friends and super close.
How’d you go from being the stylish friend to being on a couple of records on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?
One day he called me while he was working on the album. He wanted me to come to the studio to check out some pieces that Balmain had exclusively made for him and he wanted me to check out his album.
Even though the invite really was to check out clothes, I had told myself I was going to get on that album—whether he knew or not. [Laughs.] I’m not even a morning person and he wanted me to come at 9 a.m. I get there and I like his clothes. He’s like, “I knew you’d like this!” Then he started playing his album and I start humming and doing some little runs to what I’m hearing on the sly tip. I came in there humming! I knew what I was doing. [Laughs.] So he hears me and is like, “You can really sing. Yo, can you put some backgrounds on this song 'Hell of a Life'?” He knew I was signed to Pharrell and all that, but I guess he didn’t know what I could really do. Like I said, we were more fashion friends. He just knew I was fly.
So then he tells me to do “Dark Fantasy.” At the time it was pretty empty, just verses. He put me in another room by myself and said, “Go.” I came back with a whole intro and chorus. I did all the scratches and the cuts myself with my voice. That’s not a DJ thing when you hear my voice go like that. I was so nervous when I played it for Kanye. I hadn’t been in the studio for so long. I was so excited to be trying out for that song. Rihanna was there.
Are you a Martin fan? Your story sounds like the episode Biggie was on. Pam and Gina got all dressed up and sing in the background while he and Martin talked in the living room. You really got on Kanye’s album by singing in the background.
Yeah! That’s kind of what it was. I was scheming, looking through clothes on the laptop doing my little humming. Yeah, that was definitely an episode from Martin. That was a great experience.
Who else is really fly enough to be the first lady of G.O.O.D. Music? I don’t feel it could have been anybody else but me. And I’m a humble person. But you couldn’t name another person who’d be a better first lady.
What did Kanye think when he heard your work?
He loved it. He didn’t add nothing or change anything. I ended up getting three placements on that album. It was perfect. So then he asked me what my label situation was. I told him I was getting out of the Interscope contract that I was in for a while. He called me to perform in New York and then in Austin, Texas. Shit pretty much popped from there.
When did you first think being signed to G.O.O.D. was an actual possibility?
After I heard “Dark Fantasy” being played on The Hangover 2 trailer and at basketball games, it really got me thinking, “Who else is really fly enough to be the first lady of G.O.O.D. Music?” I don’t feel it could have been anybody else but me. And I’m a humble person. But you couldn’t name another person who’d be a better first lady.
What do you think Kanye loves about you as an artist?
Kanye always felt like I was the female version of him. The way I believe in clothes. The visions and wanting to make more than just a great song. It’s bigger than that. He’s been where I’ve been, where people aren’t believing in you. I feel like everybody has their season. And my season is coming up.
Was it tough being on the shelf for so long at Star Trak and Interscope?
I’m so blessed, man. It doesn’t make any sense. Of course the haters are going to see what they want to see. But you have to think about it: I’m a young girl that’s worked with Beyoncé when I was 15. I worked with Jay-Z when I was 17 and I was signed to Pharrell. I’ve been a part of some pretty epic situations. I’ve had one-on-one heart-to-hearts with Alicia Keys and people like that. And they say, “I understand you. I’ve been through that.” And even when I spoke to Swizz, he was like, “Alicia can’t stop talking about you.” So when people would hate on me, I just knew none of that matters. The right people believe in me. When Beyoncé stops me and goes, “Oh, my God, I love your video. I’m so proud of you.” That’s all that matters to me. I’m blessed on a whole other level.
What’s it like to be the only G.O.O.D. girl?
It feels great, knowing that I’m the first and only girl. It just makes me think about everybody who doubted. To have the opportunity to be a part of something so iconic is amazing.
When I came in the game, it wasn’t okay to be a girl and wear sneakers and hats and streetwear. They called me gay. Now the tomboy thing, it’s sexy. Rihanna and Rita Ora are fly and sexy. I’m happy I was able to pave that way.
When you got on Kanye’s last album, did more people start reaching out to you for features? Did you feel like you were cold before he gave you that opportunity?
Honestly, I’m not even trying to be funny or anything: I’ve always kind of been in a LeBron situation. I had many options for where I could have taken my talents. No artists have ever stopped believing in me. It’s always been, “What’s your situation?” or “Yo, this girl is a star. What are they doing with her?” Those have always been the questions. But when I did “Dark Fantasy” that’s when people starting calling me more for features. People didn’t know what I did. They thought I was a rapper. When they heard my voice, they were like, “T, I knew you sang, but I didn’t know it was like that.” They thought I was a tomboy and didn’t know my voice was so versatile.
What are you doing on the Cruel Summer album?
I rapped on certain songs. I sing on certain songs. But like everyone else in the group, I really don’t know what’s making the album. But it’s definitely going to be some hot shit. Different shit. Not that shit that everybody expects.
Who is another rapper on the team you’re excited for people to hear on the album?
Pusha. I’ve always looked up to him. That nigga’s so unpredictable with the raps. He can come at you with any flow. He can give you a love song or a party song. Or he can just hit you with straight bars. That guy’s a beast.
You dropped your mixtape in the spring. Can we expect more of the hip-hop soul type of sound from you?
My mixtape, The Misunderstanding Of Teyana Taylor, gives people a very ‘90s vibe. I’m pretty consistent with my music. Kanye loves that. He’s always like, “Every time she gets on a track, she’s on some Mary shit.” I just appreciate the way R&B used to be. I’m trapped in it. I’m staying consistent with it.
Did you ask for a release from Star Trak because you were frustrated with how you were being handled?
I wouldn’t say it was frustration. It’s just that I was signed to Star Trak for six years. And I was not working. If anything, it got frustrating for me because fans would ask me where my new music was and I’d be like, “I ask my label the same questions you ask me. I wonder the same things.” People don’t know the politics behind being signed to a label. So they just blame me like, “She doesn’t do anything” not knowing that if the label doesn’t move, nothing happens.
So I eventually asked for a release. I wanted some time to find myself as an artist and to release a mixtape and to just be a free agent. And they gave it to me. I deserved it. It was a blessing. What if I had peeked at 15, 16? I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be here at G.O.O.D. Pharrell was a blessing, though. Now it’s Kanye.
How did they react when they found out you were starting to work with Kanye? That was while you were still signed to them.
I don’t sit back and wait for no invitations. The moment I felt like nothing was going on, I did something about it. Every time something big would come up—like doing Kanye’s album—Interscope was back ready to work. When I did my own thing and it worked, everybody was excited again. You never know what you’ve got 'til it’s gone. When I asked for my release, they wanted to make it work. But I needed to find myself. I was a little depressed. I was going through it. But what helped me is having a support system like a Jay-Z or Beyoncé.
I’ve been able to keep myself hot. I’ve got a half million followers on Twitter and I’m not on anyone’s TV show or anything. People are looking for me more than they do some people with three or four albums. But now is the time. I’m not about to sit here and let another six years go by with nothing going on.
Were you hard to deal with as a teenage artist?
I was always that kid that knew too much. And sometimes labels feel like they just want an artist that will sit there and listen. I’m not going to front. I was 16 walking up in there knowing what I wanted. I knew I was going to be that kid with the big hair, rocking kicks—whether you liked it or not. And they didn’t know what to do with me. I sing, rap, and dance. The music that a lot of artists do now, if you listened to my first album that I recorded when I was 15, you’d gag. I was on this wave years ago.
Speaking of your style, you were one of, if the not the first, chick to bring back the more street look for women. You were wearing Jordans and BBC and fitted caps when you first came out. Now Rihanna and Rita Ora are on it. Do you feel like that’s your look?
I do feel like I influence a lot of artists. But the way I look at it is not in a negative way. I love them. When I came in the game, it wasn’t okay to be a girl and wear sneakers and hats and streetwear. They called me gay. Now the tomboy thing, it’s sexy. Rihanna and Rita Ora are fly and sexy. I’m happy I was able to pave that way. I love seeing our artists dressed like that. You ain’t gay if you throw on sneakers and a hat. Nobody can take that away from me and say, “Oh, she didn’t start that trend.” They all know. I’ve always been about this life and mixing kicks with high fashion on some ghetto chic shit.
Have you started working on your solo album yet?
I start August 6. I’m so excited. I’ll be in the studio for a month straight. I’m going in. My iPod is full of Total, 112, and Mary. Mint Condition and Donnell Jones and Brandy. That’s what I want to accomplish. I want that ‘90s vibe.
What’s it like working with Def Jam? What was it like walking into that building to sign your new deal?
I felt 15 again walking into Def Jam. Everybody was so excited to have me. I literally gave everybody in that building a hug. When it’s time to work on my project, everyone’s going to be excited. Def Jam has always been one of my dream labels.