Teyana Taylor looks back on the start of her career as a fated moment. She was a 15-year-old Harlem rose, singing and dancing in her neighborhood and obsessed with skateboard culture and BMX bikes. Entering the music industry at that age was the furthest thing from her mind until a friend of her mom’s who worked at Universal introduced her to her hero, Pharrell Williams.
“[At that time], Pharrell was actually coming to New York to do Good Morning America with Kanye West, so it was just crazy how things come full circle like that knowing now that I would eventually be signed to both of them,” she tells Rolling Stone, sitting near her mom, who has been her manager since she was a teen.
After signing to Pharrell’s Star Trak label she had a trying few years as a young star who had given up her normal life to make a name for herself. She was in label purgatory, holding on to a still-unreleased album. Eventually, she found her way to West, G.O.O.D. and Def Jam, and a new lease on her career. She released her debut album VII in 2014, married basketball star Iman Shumpert, had her daughter Junie and had a star-making turn dancing alone in West’s “Fade” video in 2016.
Taylor’s sophomore album, K.T.S.E. (standing for Keep That Same Energy), isn’t without its own problems, including disputes over samples and song length. But a decade in the industry has helped Taylor master the ability to move on from minor setbacks and disappointments. She spoke with RS candidly about her time with Pharrell, the road to her latest album and her “demoitis.”
Having been signed so young, what did you learn from the industry as a teen?
I learned the most that it’s a dirty game, but it’s nothing to take personal. It’s a dirty game, but it ain’t personal. I didn’t come into it ready, like “This is how the industry work. I got my little demo, I’m in the studio everyday, got my bio, this is my résumé.” Nah. I was really a regular kid that showed off my talents just in the neighborhood. So to go from that to the moment I got signed where instantly got home-schooled. I wasn’t even famous yet! Nobody knew my face for me to even be homeschooled. I immediately went into the studio, so all I knew was the studio and home.
I remember when “Google Me” came out. I cried and cried and cried and cried because I was just like, “This is just not me.” It didn’t match me. If you heard the actual album which we never even got the chance to release, “Google Me” is so random. It’s a great song, it just wasn’t for me.
Do you listen to “Google Me” now?
No. I don’t do “Google Me.” People try to play it and I’m like “Mm-mm, turn that off.” I don’t even want to see that for Throwback Thursday, I just don’t want to see it because that was a stage of me trying what the label felt like I should do.
I’ve just learned from my whole experience that you don’t take anything personal and it’s a dirty game. It’s fucking filthy. But I was willing to take that route and take that journey, to be accepted for who I was and stay true to myself and not do certain things to get certain places.
What brought you to change labels and and release VII with G.O.O.D.?
After the “Google Me” thing happened, it was just like a lot of hands in the cookie jar. And then once the cookie jar fell over and broke, everybody just scattered like roaches. And Pharrell is so non-confrontational. He’s the sweetest person and the most calm person I’ve ever met. One thing about Pharrell is when I asked for my release, he definitely was super understanding to why I wanted it. He cared and he still cares.
When I got my release, I was independent for a while, that’s when I dropped the Misunderstanding of Teyana Taylor. I had met Kanye on the Glow in the Dark Tour, the one with Pharrell. I would always run into Kanye, and he would be like “Oh your outfits are always so dope.” We kind of became fashion friends, you know. I don’t even know if he knew that I was even a singer.
Then when he was working on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he was like, “Yo, I want you to see these clothes that I designed with Balmain for the next tour. I know you out of all people is going to appreciate it, I need you to see this, I need you to come down to the studio.” Got up immediately, and my aunt drove me to him. He went from wanting to show clothes to wanting me to hear the album. He played the “Dark Fantasy” and he hears me humming, he was like, “Oh you have like a little voice, can you put some harmonies back there?”
His album had to be turned in in like four hours. He’s always been this way. He had like four hours to turn it around and by the time I got done, he had only three hours left of turning it in. They had to drag me out of that booth, you hear me? When I played that shit, everybody in the studio went fucking crazy. Everybody went bananas.
I wanna say a month later, a couple months later, I was on tour with Game on the Red Tour, overseas. My mom’s calling me saying “Oh, Kanye’s people just reached out.” They literally signed me while I was in London.
So then you finally get an album out — VII — and spend the next four years becoming a much bigger presence than ever before. Tell me about writing and preparing K.T.S.E. with so many life changes happening, like marriage, motherhood and growing celebrity.
It’s always going to be tough. If it’s easy then what am I doing it for? The last four years definitely had a few frustrations. Overall, I’ve been blessed highly with my baby and just love and positivity. It’s been four years of me growing and being a mom and being a wife and finding myself, finding my sound, exploring other things that I love to do.
Back when I was 16, I took everything personal. I was like “I didn’t get to go to graduation and I didn’t get to go to prom because of this music shit.” I was in my feelings. And now as an adult and as a mom and as a wife it’s, how can I be a better me?
You’ve been writing this album for a while. Did you join the rest of the G.O.O.D. Music crew in Wyoming to record it at all?
I didn’t record in Wyoming. I recorded between L.A. and Miami because I was filming Hit the Floor. That’s where the balance comes in. Like I can’t kiki with y’all niggas the way I used to. I can’t be up in the mountains with y’all playing around — I got a whole baby and a whole husband. I got responsibilities now. Send the beat, imma get it done.
Having worked on it in so many different capacities over the last four years, is it the sound you wanted for so long?
I knew that when I got into the process of recording a new album that it definitely would have a different sound. I knew that I would want to speak more. I would want to give more lyrical content. I knew I had more to talk about. All in all, it’s a great body of work. There may be some changes in there that I don’t necessarily agree with, but it doesn’t stop it from being a great body of work and now I feel like a lot of people see my interviews and be like “How you don’t fuck with your own album?” And it’s not that at all. It’s just that when you living with a baby and you do have demoitis, like Pusha said, this album is so personal to me and it is a vulnerable side of me, that was the way I wanted to keep it. So when you hear something different it’s like, “Whoa, what? Why was this changed?”
It’s not like there were a whole bunch of additional songs — that’s another thing people get mixed up. Certain songs that you hear on the album now only have one verse or might have only two verses. It’s just for the vibe I guess and they probably just felt like “This is a good vibe to be only two minutes.”
I’m from the old school, you know, where I want seven minute long songs. I want the five minute long Teena Marie, she just ad-libbing for three of the minutes of the five and really only got two verses.
One thing I don’t want people to ever feel like is like I’m not happy or I’m not grateful for everything, I’m grateful. But I’m also mature enough to tell myself that yeah, I could’ve given more. I even wanted more, I wanted a longer album. I’m not mad at nobody that’s mad at me for only giving them 23 minutes. So my frustration was more with, I knew that I owed my fans something fire. All that’s missing is just a couple songs, a couple verses or backgrounds — but it’s still a good project.
I know there were some sample clearance issues with Lauryn Hill. Will versions of those songs be released at any point?
Eventually. I’m just tired of making promises or getting my expectations up. After that week when it still wasn’t ready, I’m not finna tell you every week, “Oh, next week” and then next week come and then another “Oh the next week and then next week come — I’m not gon’ keep doing that.
Next week the shit might be ready and I could just give it to you. I’d rather just have that shit uploaded and be like “Here’s the link” and everybody just be like “Ahhhh, bitch it’s out, it’s out!”
I don’t want to make no more promises. Me and Ty Dolla $ign is working on an album, I don’t have a date for that yet. I’m doing visuals to every song on the album, I’m doing a mini movie. We’re shooting “Work This Pussy” this week while we’re in New York and they’re gonna love me. Also I have the freedom to put my versions of the records —my demoitis versions — with my visuals. You’ll have the best of both worlds.
Pusha not only pointed out your “demoitis” but also called K.T.S.E. the best of the G.O.O.D. releases this summer.
For the president of the label to be like “Yeah, I got that phone call from T. T’s never calm.” Like that’s just real nigga shit. I appreciate him for that because it calmed me in some way. It actually made me feel like I’m not bugging. Sometimes when artists are sensitive about their shit, they just want to know that you don’t think that they’re bugging. They want to know that you don’t think that they’re crazy. Once I feel like you get me, then at that point I’m riding, I’m trooping it out, I’m willing to do whatever, but just let me know that you feel me.