Tinashe Reflects on the Runaway Viral Success of Summer Anthem ‘Nasty’: ‘Ten Years Later, Who Would Have Thought?’

Earlier this year, Tinashe was driving alone, her laptop open to Photo Booth in the passenger seat, when the idea for her viral single “Nasty” struck. She was playing the beat she’d just confected with producer/songwriter Ricky Reed (Lizzo, Camila Cabello) off her phone, mumbling along to the sparse, hollow instrumental as she recorded herself on the computer. Shortly after, she returned to the studio with Reed, restructured the song and went home to lay down the vocals with an engineer.

Ever since she first teased it on Valentine’s Day during an Instagram Live, “Nasty” has become the second act — or third, or fourth, if you’re counting — in Tinashe’s decade-plus career. The fly-your-freak-flag anthem has become her most prominent hit since 2014’s “2 On,” her only solo single to crack the Billboard Hot 100 where it peaked at No. 25. Though “Nasty” is still technically bubbling under — it bowed at No. 6 on the R&B Digital Song Sales chart, and is yet to hit other tallies — it’s become a cultural event, memeified across social media and, if the cards are played right, could be a potential summer smash.

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“It’s amazing. I’m just so thankful,” Tinashe tells Variety. “I was saying this to my mom the other day, 10 years later, who would have thought? And I didn’t need this moment. I came to the place where I didn’t need that validation anymore. And I think that makes it even better, because it’s like holy shit, the universe just worked in such mysterious ways.”

The success of “Nasty” is sort of old school, culling the type of democratized virality that major labels have struggled to achieve in the rise of the internet. The fact that Tinashe is now an independent artist, formerly signed to RCA, only heightens its trajectory. She released the song to coincide with her dual Coachella performances in April, when a few clips of the performances gained thousands of retweets on X (formerly Twitter). She then leaned into the buzz on TikTok, and noticed users starting to tweet lyrics. Something felt different right away, not because of how listeners were reacting, but because of how it resonated across the industry.

“I noticed a difference almost immediately because I started getting hit up by my peers, and I feel like people see my content all the time but it’s very rare I’ll get a DM from Meghan Trainor being like, ‘I love that song,’ or Kehlani or Tyla,” she says. “There was a group of people within the first week that I dropped it that were messaging me being like that’s that shit. So to me, I was like, OK, this is different. Unusual.”

It was when TikTok user Nate Di Winer posted a video of himself dancing to Hey Choppi’s “Blind” that the track went into orbit — not at first on TikTok, where “Nasty” has now been used in almost 100,000 videos, but on Twitter, where user @grruessome overlaid “Nasty” onto Winer’s clip. Tinashe has been social media savvy throughout her career, and green-screened herself onto the video in a TikTok post that now has 5.4 million views. “It’s been a snowball avalanche since then,” she says.

What differentiates the virality of “Nasty” from similar social phenomena is its versatility. One tweet that drew from its lyrics — “Is somebody gonna match my freak?” — asked for X users to share two people who actually did match each others’ freak, to the tune of 31,000 retweets. Elsewhere, on TikTok, it has its own dance challenge, where contemporaries Omar Apollo and Kehlani wined to the song.

“I definitely think that everything that I’ve done up to now, all those grinding it out moments where I just had my head down and was just putting out the best music I could and being really consistent and making great visuals and things like that, it’s all led up to this,” she says. “I don’t think it’s just this. Everything that I’ve done really laid the groundwork, and the people who have been quietly supporting at all these different platforms that have been ‘waiting’ for me to have my moment, they can all activate now. I feel like everything has led up to this, so I’m thankful for both this moment and also the journey it took to get here.”

Every day, “Nasty” increasingly posts more streams on Spotify, where it’s ticking towards 12 million listens. Over the past 39 days, the song had a 220 percent increase on the platform. This isn’t exactly new for Tinashe — “2 On” has almost 400 million — but it’s a moment of gratification for anyone who’s kept tabs on her career throughout the past 10 years. It’s especially endearing for Tinashe. The 31-year-old’s journey to now has been a lesson in perseverance marked by start-stops, outside pressures to change her artistic vision, and a highly competitive musical climate where her experimentation and divergence from genre norms branded her an outlier.

That hasn’t stopped her from releasing a compelling, risk-taking body of work, albeit on the outskirts. She put out her first three albums with RCA — 2014’s “Aquarius,” followed by “Nightride” and “Joyride” in two-year increments — before leaving the label to become an independent artist, dissatisfied with the expectations that come with being on a major label roster.

“I’ve progressed past the point of giving myself those expectations, especially in the studio,” she says. “I think that every song has the potential to be amazing or not. I just have accepted the trajectory of my journey. I don’t go into the studio trying to make a hit anymore. I just go into the studio and try to make something that I really love. So as long as I come out of it and I’m like, I’m fucking with that? To me, that’s always my goal. My mind never really goes there anymore, which is kind of crazy. But I think it’s better that way, honestly.”

Since then, she’s maintained a steady output, flitting between R&B, pop and electronic. Her most recent project, “BB/Ang3l,” landed last September, marking the first of a trilogy of releases that includes her upcoming second installment “BB/Ang3l Pt. 2: Quantum Baby,” arriving in a “month or two.” She has plans to release a “Nasty” remix, or maybe a few remixes, and she’s currently getting verses sent in from various artists.

Even with the rise of “Nasty,” Tinashe is sticking to what she knows. Like with everything related to her career, she doesn’t have expectations for the song, or her upcoming project, because she’s learned that overinvesting in them isn’t worth what could potentially be the outcome. “I think it opens up your mind to what’s possible, which is a great thing,” she explains. “But I don’t think having expectations is still the answer. I think it’s just being in the moment and allowing everything to play out the way it plays out, because that’s exactly what happened in this moment. I want to continue to do that. I don’t want to fuck up the energy by being like, this is definitely going to happen. You just gotta ride the waves.”

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