‘Tyla’: A Star Is Born (Album Review)

The South African singer delivers one of the best debuts in a while.

Tyla is, quite simply, a star.

It was already obvious months before she would drench the world with her “Water,” when the Johannesburg-born singer broke through Stan Twitter with the video for her Afrobeats-meets-early ’00s club banger “Been Thinking.”

Armed with killer dance moves (and incredibly agile hips), heaven-sent vocals and undeniable wattage, she drew instant comparisons to early Rihanna, Ciara and Tinashe, as well as the cool, icy-R&B chill of Aaliyah and Cassie. (Not a bad array of names to spring to mind first.)

But she truly got her start back with 2019’s hypnotic dance floor-ready debut “Getting Late” with Kooldrink, released just after graduating high school, and just as she was starting to apply to become a mining engineer (!). The self-produced accompanying video, filmed mid-pandemic by her own manager (whom she acquired after posting covers to her Instagram while in school), with its Bring It On / Drumline Y2K movie-meets-Ariana Grande‘s Thank U, Next era vibe, was her first true taste of virality, earning her a nomination at the South African Music Awards in 2022.

By the time “Water” rolled around the following summer, it was safe to say that the only thing Tyla would be mining is future hits in the studio.

Call it the perfect convergence of preparation, luck and opportunity: Tyla’s arrival landed exactly at the right time in pop culture amid an ongoing Afrobeats takeover across the global music scene. (See the Grammys creating the Best African Music Performance category, as well as Billboard’s U.S. Afrobeats Songs chart, which just launched in 2022.)

With “Water,” produced by Sammy Soso, Tyla helped to cause an explosion of interest in amapiano. The South African house subgenre, which has exploded in popularity in the post-pandemic era, combines elements of lounge and jazz with deep house, characterized by the use of log drum and synths, providing chill-yet-highly danceable grooves. (I recommend watching this short-but-informative documentary This Is Amapiano from BBC Africa for a good intro to the genre.)

In early interviews as the song rose to fame, Tyla described her sound as “popiano” – a pop twist on amapiano, cutting down the several minutes-long structure of typical amapiano songs into tighter, verse-chorus structured pop radio-friendly songwriting.

“Water” steadily grew from a trickle to a waterfall throughout the second half of 2023 – not just because the addictive song itself, but because of Tyla’s now signature Bacardi-inspired dance moves, courtesy of South African choreographer Litchi. The public instantly tried to replicate the sultry leg swinging, bump-bump-bump rump shaking (“make me sweat…“) and water bottle pouring, resulting in a viral TikTok dance that found thousands of people shaking their soggy backsides trying to do their best Tyla impressions.

By the end of the year, she was making her U.S. late night TV debut, and Janet Jackson was providing the ultimate seal of approval and mixing it into her own stage show, and acts like LE SSERAFIM were rushing to the studio to do their best takes on the Tyla hit.

At 22, Tyla’s already notched an impressive array of feats in a shockingly short amount of time: the first South African soloist to chart on the Billboard Hot 100 in 55 years, the first-ever winner in that new Grammys category, the youngest African artist to win a Grammy…the list truly goes On & On (REFERENCE).

The immediate concern, of course, is that one hit might be all that Tyla has to offer. A TikTok trend doesn’t exactly guarantee follow-up success – in fact, it may even make it harder. But by the end of November, she was already proving that “Water” wasn’t a fluke.

With just a mic and a pair of thigh-high boots, Tyla delivered a sultry rendition of her then-new song “On & On” in an appearance on the hit COLORS web series, proving she’s the real deal without any bells, whistles or water bottles at her disposal – just pure, undeniable star power.

Two more solid tracks followed at the tail-end of 2023: the intoxicating kiss-off “Truth or Dare,” which got a NABIL-directed Fast & Furious-style music video in February, and the delicately crooned, acoustic guitar-led “Butterflies.”

And just like that, Tyla’s debut instantly became one of 2024’s most anticipated albums.

Tyla doesn’t stray from her now-signature popiano sound on her debut, nor should she.

After making a dent in the music industry, it would only make sense for her to further ride the wave. The end result is a thoroughly satisfying, entirely cohesive body of work from start to finish from a singer who is clearly destined for great things still to come.

She tempts fate time and time again on her debut, playing truth or dare with a fool who only came back around now that she’s on the up, feeling butterflies for a dud in disguise, and fleeing from an alluring, but clearly toxic flame across the almost holy-sounding “Safer,” backed by dramatic chants. Frankly, we need to find her some better suitors.

But fear not: Tyla knows her worth.

Features come frequently throughout Tyla, as on the empowering “No. 1” with fellow African talent, Nigeria’s Tems. “I gotta put me number one, no compromising,” the duo declare over and over again across a sublime soundscape, capturing the feel of a drive off into the sunset with the girls. Elsewhere, she admires herself as the museum-worthy work of art that she is on “ART.” “Fresh out the gallery / Can you handle me? Handle me carefully,” she croons.

There are more unexpected tag-teams too, including “On My Body” with our favorite “Mayores” aficionado, Becky G. As the story goes, Becky was recording next door at the same time as Tyla, the two met, and Becky ended up providing her fun, bilingual spin on “On My Body,” injecting some Latin flavor into the cultural melting pot of a project. The “Cha Cha Slide”-referencing track is maybe the most playful of the bunch – “Said you big, but bigger than who? Can’t be me, it’s giving delu,” Tyla declares. (Becky knows about the bigger ones that can’t fit in her mouth, we know.) There’s references to Bacardi dancing and, apparently, Manchester United’s Andre Onana (“‘Cause I’m a keeper, Oh-na-na“) too.

Gunna and Skillibeng hop on “Jump,” one of the few sonic deviations from the more laidback vibe of the rest of the LP, providing a taste of Tyla at her cockiest across a decidedly harder beat. “They never had a pretty girl from Joburg / See me now, and that’s what they prefer,” she brags while talking about being chauffeured around the world. But it’s also about representing Johannesburg (Joburg) and providing an anthem for the girls: “I’m just so excited to hear all the girls sing it, all the Joburg girls sing it, all the girls from home,” she explained to Apple Music.

Tyla’s debut is as much about her as it is about putting a spotlight on South African culture: the opening, a voice note from a session with Kelvin Momo, features Tyla’s favorite amapiano producer speaking in the background. “I wanted to start off my album with something that was truly South African, something that showed people the root of where I started, before ‘Water’, before all of these mixtures,” she explained to Apple.

As far as the early comparisons to the legendary R&B-pop acts who paved the way, she most directly draws a link to the past with the Corey Marlon Lindsay-Keay-produced “On & On,” a nostalgic party track that gives a nod to the ’90s which she describes as “old-school R&B,” with “hints of Aaliyah’s influence, but it’s new, and fresh.”

“Breathe Me,” one of the many highlights deeper into the record, sees Tyla at her most sensual: “You don’t need no air, you can just…breathe me,,” she purrs, graciously offering her best CPR services. It’s the kind of aural pleasure that would make Janet proud – and finally provides a solution to the oxygen-deprived problem Jordin Sparks has been having for years.

Trying to balance her burgeoning pop superstar duties while still maintaining a personal life and (evidently rocky) romances can be stressful, it seems: in perhaps the most personal moment on the album, she reflects on being spread too thin with the ballad-adjacent “Priorities”: “My first mistake, thinkin’ that I could be everything / Look how spreadin’ myself thin became my priority again,” she laments. On an album largely buoyed by a strong sense of assuredness, it’s a surprising glimpse into the pressure and frustrations she’s dealing with behind-the-scenes.

Of the handful of songs Tyla’s released pre-“Water,” only 2022’s “To Last” makes the cut on her debut, bringing the set to a heartbreak-filled close. Tyla solemnly reflects on a love lost (“You never gave us a chance, it’s like you never wanted to last…“) Here at the end of the record, as electronic pulsations come swirling into the speakers, it almost feels like a hint of even more club-ready material still to come. (One can only hope.)

To last, to last…” she sings in the final moments, a fitting final transmission from an artist who’s already contributed to a lasting change in the music industry. And she’s only just getting started.

Click here to buy Tyla on vinyl.

Check out the MuuTunes Spotify playlist. You can also subscribe on Apple Music.

Photo credit: Jeremy Soma

This site contains product affiliate links. I may receive a commission if you make a purchase after clicking on one of these links.

‘Las Mujeres Ya No Lloran’: Shakira Triumphs Over a Breakup With Bangers (Album Review)

‘Las Mujeres Ya No Lloran’: Shakira Triumphs Over a Breakup With Bangers (Album Review)

The icon offers a diverse array of hits while rebuilding her personal life

“Emptiness”: BoA, Queen of K-Pop, Returns With a Breakup Banger

“Emptiness”: BoA, Queen of K-Pop, Returns With a Breakup Banger

BoA dances through heartbreak with an Afrobeats-inspired beat

You May Also Like