Album Review: Tkay Maidza – Sweet Justice

[4AD; 2023]

You can’t unsee Tkay Maidza. A walking, singing, rhyming art installation, the self-professed FKA twigs fanatic also seems to draw visual inspiration from Grimes and – in the video for the new “WUACV” – Die Antwoord. As if being a Zimbawean/Australian Los Angelina wasn’t exotic enough, her list of collaborators includes Emotional Oranges, Snakehips, Killer Mike, American indie-rockers Bad Cop, plus now Flume and Kaytranada: constantly changing skins like the gamer she is.

Fashion designers and editors took note: luxury brands, street brands, even bejeweled, over-the-ear headphone manufacturers. For these lavish photo spreads, publications generally tack on surprisingly effervescent Maidza Q&As (or at least because their subject makes them that way). Filled with life, ambition and curiosity, Maidza doesn’t come off like she lives in her own world but one who enlivens the one around her. 

Surprisingly then, Sweet Justice sounds muted. Two of its anticipatory singles (“WUACV” and “Silent Assassin”) didn’t portend as much. Each menaces the speakers with distorted, synth bass over prowling beats; the latter, in particular, buzzes madly like a housefly trapped between the window and wire screen. A third, “Ring-a-Ling”, wires directly into J Balvin’s bouncy “Mi Gente”, which, in retrospect, was the truest of the promo singles. Perhaps she never had time to digest the 2017 smash or felt that its dembow beat ran too close to the bhangra she’d previously explored. Regardless, there’s a streak of the safe and familiar dominating Sweet Justice; more than they probably should. 

Along with “Mi Gente”, Sweet Justice bears likeness to Doja Cat (“What Ya Know”), Aaliyah (the stand-out “Won One”), SZA (“Love Again”) and Dua Lipa (“Ghost!”), while “Gone To The West” features a Bernard Wright sample famously repurposed for Skee-Lo’s ubiquitous “I Wish”. It feels designed for maximum marketability–a near-fatal risk taken by Kim Petras in the summer. 

This year marks Maidza’s 10th as a recording artist. Still a teenager when she began, the artist now stares down the end of her 20s. A cursory glance at her release history indicates a hectic pace including multiple volumes of her Last Year Was Weird EP series. (Two of those were recorded before the pandemic made things truly weird, so she tripled down and issued a third.) Early on, the influence of M.I.A., Santigold and Gwen Stefani was never far away; as Maidza aged, those threads faded and a scattergun approach emerged that, if anything, was lively. 

To be fair, Sweet Justice slows for a chance at reflection and return to ideas that were set aside while she bolted at ludicrous speed into plaid. Based loosely around a theme of karma and betrayal, it’s possible that the attempt to tie everything together lyrically came at expense elsewhere. The sequencing doesn’t help: following the Lykke Li-ish opener “Love And Other Drugs” and nuclear trap of “WUACV” (which stands for “woke up and chose violence”) comes a Barbie pink, seven-song sampler of other peoples’ sounds. We don’t get to see Maidza again until the three bangers crammed into the back half, which is very late.