Review: ‘TYLA’ by Tyla

her debut album

The internet might think otherwise, but Tyla didn’t just appear out of nowhere. 

The Johannesburg-born and raised artist’s rapid ascent to Pop supremacy has been a true testament to how talent, old-school artist development, and the universe can align to make a superstar.

It took just over a year for the singer’s first-ever release to catch fire. Getting Late,” the inexplicably groovy Kooldrink-collaboration took over TikTok a year after its release, thanks to its exceptional, choreography-heavy visuals. Unbeknownst to her, that would be just a precursor to global virality. Since Tyla’s breakthrough, her artistic approach has been a breath of fresh air to many: her R&B and Pop-inspired takes on Amapiano caught attention and established her profile as a must-watch talent. Getting Late” sounded like nothing that had been out in South Africa at that time. Naturally, labels came knocking, a bidding war ensued, in which Epic Records emerged victorious.

Two years after her debut, the singer followed up with the DJ Lag-featuring, Gqom and Afrotech-infused track Overdue (which was featured on the soundtrack of the second season of Netflix Original ‘Blood & Water’) before returning to ‘piano-inflected soundscapes on To Last.” Towards the tail end of 2022, To Last received the remix treatment from Amapiano mainstays DJ Maphorisa and Young Stunna, whom Tyla also appeared alongside on ShaunMusiq & Ftears’ Thatha Ahh.” These collaborations and a feature on Kelvin Momo’s Ngowam,” from the well-received ‘Amukelani,’ gave her much needed credibility within an Amapiano scene that is built upon authenticity. Around the same time, Tyla performed at Scorpion Kings’ Printworks show in London. That stage appearance marked her first performance on UK soil and planted a seed for her return to Europe in early 2023, as an opening act on Chris Brown’s ‘Under The Influence’ tour. 

Tyla continued her sonic explorations on the House track Been Thinking and teamed up for a cross-continental collabs with her Nigerian counterpart Ayra Starr on Girl Next Door.” However, it was her third single of 2023, “Water,” that changed everything for the starlet from Johannesburg. After the July drop, TikTok did its thing, and Tyla was out of here. Late-night  appearances and performances came next, followed by an enticing music video, high-profile interviews, a Top 10 peak on the US Billboard Hot 100, and remixes with Marshmello and Travis Scott. To top all these achievements, Tyla received a gramophone from the Recording Academy for the inaugural Best African Music Performance category at this year’s GRAMMYs, in a highly competitive field including relative veterans such as Davido & Burna Boy. 

After the unprecedented success and a breakout moment on that global stage, Tyla has finally presented the world with her self-titled debut album. The eponymous offering expands on her signature blend of Pop and R&B, paired with a constant undercurrent of her nation’s dear Amapiano – a sonic mixture she describes as “Pop-Piano”. The “Pop” is important. For decades, Black women have been boxed into categories such as R&B, “Urban”, and more recently Afrobeats, by a male-dominated industry intent on protecting its version of Pop, and the perks that come with it. So far, it does appear that Tyla is successfully breaking through as a Pop star from the continent, bringing with her all that comes with that unique identity – her accent, her dance moves, her swagger and an entire continent, and most importantly, her country, behind her. 

Listeners are welcomed to her eagerly anticipated debut set with a sound recording from a studio session with Kelvin Momo, who she describes as her “favourite Amapiano producer.” Akin to her arrival on the scene in 2019, her now unmistakeable velvety vocals pierce through the conversation on “Intro”, singing in Zulu “Wang’bamba/Wang’thatha/Wang’beka” (which loosely translates to ‘you held, took and placed me…’). The 41-second clip is an intentional and touching hat-tip to her roots. While prolific Amapiano hitmakers like Kelvin Momo (the only South African feature on the album) gave Tyla credibility early on, the success of “Water” has made her somewhat of an unofficial flag-bearer for the music from her country. And she’s clearly not forgetting where she came from as she embarks on this transatlantic journey.

Tyla’s upbringing deeply informs her musical makeup and presentation. American R&B from the ‘90s and 2000s is a staple in many households in South Africa, particularly in black and coloured communities, and as such, these influences are a cornerstone of Tyla’s artistry. Other genres, such as South African House, Afrobeats, and obviously Amapiano, have largely inspired the Edenvale native. The arrival of her debut was announced with three new songs that explored and showcased the different styles she has a knack for.

A resounding guitar loop creates a perfect background for Tyla to churn out some memorable sung-rap lines as she does telling a boy off on the R&B-drenched “Butterflies.”I don’t need reparations, boy, bye/Countin’ blessings by the dozen/Oooh, I’m God’s child/All it took was dedication to make me fly,” she sweetly coos. “On and On” is bouncier and more pop-intuitive. The party-themed track was first hinted at during the Chris Brown tour, the songstresswho only had several titles to her name at the time premiered the song in front of thousands of attendees. A day before its official release, the song premiered during Tyla’s debut performance on COLORS. However, from the bundle of songs, it became apparent that the Afropop-influenced “Truth Or Dare” was going to be her primary focus. The choir-loaded and brimming thumper prominently features the same heavyweight cast of contributors as “Water,” which made it a fitting follow-up and bolstered the rising star’s credentials. 

By working with the same producers, composers, and songwriters–which mainly consists of Sammy Soso, Corey Marlon Lindsay-Keay, Samuel Awuku, and Ari PenSmith (whom she playfully calls the ‘Fantastic Four’) – Tyla maintains a cohesive sonic congruence that serves her well, similarly to how she has carefully carved out her visual aesthetics and brand identity.

“Breathe Me” is cut from the same cloth that made “Water” in relation to its subtle and nimbly suggestive lyrics. “Don’t talk too much, I know what you need/Follow me, no need to follow your mind, or your heart/Whoa, mouth to mouth when you’re touching me/Open up baby, I’ll fill your lungs, CPR,” she sings on the bridge before moving to the more daring hook. “You don’t need no air; you can just breathe me, breathe me/One breath ain’t enough, breathe me/Inhale harder, wanna feel your heart beat louder/Take you higher, we can go where you wanna, na-na.” 

In a similar vein, “ART” also touches on the subject of attention with carefully crafted, innuendo-filled lyrics such as “Draw me in/Look at what you started/Good with your hands, can you paint my body?/Go ‘head and brush up on me/Baby, when you want it, sign it, dot it” and “Fresh out the gallery/Can you handle me?/Handle me carefully, I’ll be yours to keep/ I’m your centrepiece/Make the canvas speak.” While love and romance thematically reoccur on the album, such imaginative and meticulous songwriting makes it make the point stick long after the song segues into another.

On “Safer,” an earlier cut on the album, Tyla expresses reluctance to fall in love with someone she knows is wrong for her. “The last time that I met someone like you/ Had some good times and we had some bad times too/And it looks like you gonna be that times two/As bad as I want ya/I know that it’s danger, I know that I’m safer running,” she sings before the crowded vocals of the hook come on. It’s another example of how skilfully Tyla skirts emotional landmines. Nigerian superstar Tems joins her for a scene-stealing contribution on “No.1,” and together, they serve notice about prioritising themselves and leaving a toxic romantic relationship over a polyrhythmic Afropop-inspired bop. It almost feels like a full circle moment for the singer-songwriters who have shown appreciation for each other’s work and are leading the pack for a new generation of women artists from the continent who are redefining the perception of popular music coming out of Africa.

Even with the world’s spotlight and gaze on her, Tyla has remained genuine and authentic to herself. The accent is still the same, and in interviews and performances, her charismatic personality shines out through the occasional “yohs,” “yeeeys” and “asambes,” expressions unique to her home country. The Gunna and Skillibeng-assisted “Jump” is a sticky-sweet Dancehall riddim. But even while orchestrating intercontinental link-ups and settling in new territory, Tyla brings along “hayibo” party chants and the log drum. “They never had a pretty girl from Joburg/ See me now, and that’s what they prefer/ I don’t touch no wheel ‘cause I got a chauffeur/ First class, how I get ‘round the world,” she confidently kicks off her verse on the track.

Similarly, this energy permeates the reggaeton-tinged “On My Body,” featuring Mexican-American superstar Becky G, as she impressively glides across the peppy beat. The collaboration between the two pop stars also highlights and strengthens the already existing relationship between Latin and African popular music.

Whether attributed to good management and artist development, it’s not a stretch to assume that Tyla has been preparing for this moment all her life. In the deep recesses of the internet, there’s a video of an 11-year-old Tyla singing Justin Bieber’s “Die In Your Arms” and “Fall.” And if you stroll down enough on her Instagram feed, you will see posts of young Tyla Laura Seethal singing covers of popular songs and tagging established producers. Artists and music enthusiasts usually say it takes your whole life and lived experiences to make your first album, and this seems to be the case for the Jo-burg born musician. The album, which has been close to three years in the making, fits the bill for a coming of age story. 

As with all coming of age stories, there are bound to be moments of consternation. One such moment arrived early in March when Tyla was forced to cancel her eagerly-anticipated tour due to an injury. Some of the public reaction to Tyla’s reason for cancelling the tour has bordered on vicious trolling of the young star who found herself accused of using the injury to cover up poor ticket sales. It all ties into a larger conversation about accusations of her being an industry plant, mostly from stateside detractors, that have been a constant throughout her whirlwind run since the release of “Water.”

“Priorities,” a refreshingly introspective groove, feels like an attempt at responding to the critics–and finding inner peace through the turmoil, as she asks herself, “How many places can I be at once?/ How many people can I be at once?/ How many people can I please at once?” At its best, the album is a deft attempt at quieting naysayers and non-believers as well as steeling herself for what is sure to be a memorable career.

‘TYLA’ is Seethal’s first victory lap, as she struts the global runway and engraves her artistic and international ambitions, allowing her undeniable talent as an adaptable, international Pop star shine through. 

[Featured Image Credits/The NATIVE]