Late Wednesday night, Tinashe released a song not unlike many of her others in that it is most accurately described as “a bop.” But on “Flame,” an ode to a relationship on the verge of burning out, the “2 On” singer charts emotional territory heavier than her quintessential party jams. Like most Tinashe records, it’s highly danceable, but the desperation she evokes is unprecedented and haunting: “C’mon, tell me that you’ve still got the flame for me / And tell me that you still want to stay, don’t leave,” she sings in unusually daring pop vocal rises.
Since Sunday, Tinashe has been posting teasers on Instagram, hyping the song and also hinting at a forthcoming music video. The video clips she posted in particular are sultry and somber, well-suited to the song’s earnestly pleading tone. With a closeup of her vampy black acrylics lighting matches in one clip and a sepulchral room lit only by a shrinelike spread of candles in the next, she establishes the song’s macabre weight well before its arrival; “Flames” is as much elegy as it is plea for redemption. The shift from the more lighthearted pop themes of partying, seduction, and just plain feelin’ herself offers a glimpse at a more dynamic, refined Tinashe.
But amid the week’s well-curated track promotion came a distraction: two ill-advised, deeply awkward images from a Terry Richardson photo shoot. Once again, Tinashe has been felled by a promotional misstep that vastly overshadows her legitimate shot at achieving the solid middle-of-the-road pop acclaim she’s earned with her perfectly adequate tracks. Stark and stilted, the photos, taken for a British GQ Style spread, feature Tinashe at first alone and then alongside rapper Travis Scott. The first image, in which Tinashe holds a lighter bearing her name between her lips, is inoffensive if also boring. But the second finds her at once disappearing into the background like an accessory — and standing out in glaringly inelegant fashion.
Her right arm reaching across a twisted, Calvin Klein–bra-clad torso, Tinashe reaches brazenly for Scott’s crotch. Lips slightly parted, her face is deadpan. It’s the kind of expression a contestant might try on in an early episode of America’s Next Top Model before going with something with a little … anything … behind it. She looks uncomfortable, her face stiff and body mechanically posed as though she were a sexualized marionette. (It’s the same look on DeJ Loaf’s face whenever she briefly abandons her tomboy steez.) Scott, for his part, seems hardly upset but nowhere near enthused; sunglasses obscure his eyes, and his neck leans away from Tinashe (though perhaps just to make room for her awkwardly placed left arm, which extends to grab his chest). The photo, in which the tag for Scott’s Instagram name sits directly on his crotch, is captioned, “highly sensitive material.”
The other tag, placed on Tinashe’s right thigh, is that of the eminently sleazy photographer himself. Richardson, whose oeuvre includes photos of stars from Miley Cyrus to Lady Gaga to Lil’ Kim, is as infamous for his suggestive signature style as he is for his sexual harassment scandals. The decision to shoot with him is just one in a series of choices Tinashe’s team has made that undermine the star’s perfectly solid pop competency. Whether it’s posing for a shot that involves licking the seat of a miniature toilet (yes, really) or performing on a crowded runway in the middle of a Rita Ora–hosted America’s Next Top Model episode, Tinashe can’t seem to get out of the ill-fitting pop-seductress lane she’s been put in.
The singer, weighed down by questionable promotional decisions and an inability to push unconventionally sexy photoshoots beyond sleaze and toward art, keeps floundering. Meanwhile, Joyride, her sophomore album, has yet to receive a public release date. The editorial and management choices surrounding Tinashe are especially disappointing because they don’t match the artist’s music. “2 On,” the Schoolboy Q–assisted 2014 single, is her only Billboard Top 100 hit despite the bevy of Girls’ Night Out–ready jams she’s released in the years since. “All Hands on Deck” and “Party Favors” are both infectious and sultry. And like the rest of the Nightride mixtape, “Company” and “Ride of Your Life” are unabashedly confident and sexy. They’re all fun, and they inspire a lightheartedness that nearly none of her photo shoots or notoriously questionable awards show attire have captured.
“Flame” as a single–and perhaps a video–follows in the tradition of Tinashe’s career in that the music itself is promising, but the packaging fails to inspire confidence or even intrigue. If her fellow paper-bag-test-passing sistren FKA Twigs and Kehlani are distinguished by their avant garde art heaux status and gritty emotionality, respectively, then Tinashe needs to find a lane of her own that feels authentic. “Pop jams perfect for both contemporary nights out and the backdrop of an early-aughts teen romantic comedy” isn’t a terrible space to occupy; Tinashe could more believably own it if she borrowed from rom-com tropes, shook out her shoulders, and just relaxed. She is at her best when she is enjoying herself, projecting a sexiness that comes not from industry benchmarks but from the confidence of a woman in her element. If Tinashe’s team takes her music seriously, they should let her have some damn fun for once.
An earlier version of the story misidentified the magazine featuring a Tinashe photo spread. It was British GQ Style, not British GQ.