PinkPantheress: Just a feeling
It’s early autumn and PinkPantheress is headed to Aladdin’s Cave – a secondhand furniture shop in Lewisham, south east London.
She’s just moved into her second-year student house and is hunting for old-timey wares for her new room. The 20-year-old, who prefers to keep her real name secret, tells me she’s obsessed with gothic aesthetics right now. It’s a fitting interest, considering she looks like a Tim Burton character – all wide-eyed and whimsical.
Not that fans have had many opportunities to gaze upon the singer-songwriter and producer in real life. The majority of her listeners have only encountered PinkPantheress and her dopamine-inducing music – which, for the uninitiated, draws from 90s and early-00s UK-rooted styles such as drum’n’bass, UKG, jungle, and then some – virtually. Largely via TikTok and its tailored For You pages.
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Dress: Sarah Regensburger
The role that Gen Z’s favourite app has played in the making of PinkPantheress shouldn’t be downplayed, even if you sense she’s outgrowing it a little. She posted her first TikTok as PinkPantheress on Christmas Day 2020 – a decision, she says, prompted by one of her videos on her personal account going viral. “It got 500k likes and it wasn’t even of me,” she explains, of this flukey video, though she doesn’t expand on what it was. “I was like, ‘If this is working for a completely random video where I have no followers…’” Figuring that the app had career-launching potential, she tightened her focus and began posting short snippets of then-unreleased material.
Her instincts were proved correct. Right now, less than a year on from her first TikTok as PinkPantheress, the artist has over one million followers on the app (her follower count increased by 200k while writing this profile) and ten million monthly listeners on Spotify. This is all the more remarkable when you consider that she has just a smattering of short tracks, including the so-good-it-must-be-laced-with-something hit just for me, to her name. And the majority of these she created on GarageBand in the early hours, or during Zoom lectures, in her university halls.
In a move that could seem counterintuitive for an artist whose success is at least partially predicated on a particularly modern kind of fame, PinkPantheress maintains an air of secrecy online. Only two of the five pictures on her Instagram actually feature her, and her TikToks are super zoomed-in, or shot from an intentionally obscure angle. This means when a rare PinkPantheress picture winds up online, it’s lapped up by her followers, garnering comments like: “She move like Frank Ocean and I fw that.”
I relay this particular comment to PinkPantheress as she mooches around Aladdin’s Cave. She pauses briefly, before letting out an audible cringe. “Oh god, I don’t know about that…” “But it’s fair to say you’re relatively elusive?” I ask.
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“I’ve never had anyone say to me, ‘It’s great that you’re Black and you’re making this kind of music.’ To read it online, it’s nice that people are considering that when they listen to my music”
“True, OK,” she concedes. “Frank Ocean’s actually a big inspiration. Three people inspired the elusiveness: Shiloh Dynasty, The Weeknd before he was The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. I love that he was private on Instagram.”
Her desire for privacy isn’t new. She’s never been one to overshare on social media – even before she was PinkPantheress. “Once people see a lot of someone, or have a feeling they know what someone’s like based off of something they’ve seen or read, they act like they know this person,” she says knowingly. “What I’m trying to do is get everyone to realise that you know my music, but you don’t know me.”
Despite these hard boundaries, the conversation flows easily. We rattle through various first date-style niceties – she’s big into psychological thrillers; cats over dogs, she reckons, and PE was her favourite subject at school – though it’s film that she’s studying at uni. Musically, she’s a fan of Kelela, Imogen Heap, Kaytranada and My Chemical Romance. Oh, and Lily Allen. This makes sense; her songwriting style mirrors Allen’s, also favouring confessional and earworm-inducing qualities as she playfully volleys between the utterly mundane and Skins-era adolescent anguish. “I’m obsessed with you in a way I can’t believe/When you wipe your tears do you wipe them just for me?” for example, or the coy, “It’s eight o’clock in the morning, now I’m entering my bed/ Had a few dreams about you, I can’t tell you what we did.”
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Growing up in Bath, south west England, in the 2000s, meant much of her early music discovery took place online – relatable, of course, to anyone else who grew up in a relatively rural area during the turn of the millennium. As a teenager she went through “every internet phase you could probably get, realistically”. There was her emo phase, her K-pop phase, plus her One Direction and heavy metal phases.
This adolescent enthusiasm has matured into a curiosity that she telegraphs to her followers. Now, she’s the entrypoint through which young people can discover genres hitherto inaccessible to them, either through age or geography, from the ecstasy of UKG to the alien tempos of drum’n’bass. I’m curious whether she’s conscious of being a gateway into these worlds. “Me and you, we’re British,” she replies. “So when we were growing up, we had these garage and drum’n’bass sounds around us. It wasn’t something I was conscious of, and I didn’t think, ‘Oh these Americans haven’t heard this before so they’re going to love it,’ – it just happened to be that way.” However, she is conscious of being seen as a figurehead: “If you want to listen to that stuff, you need to deep dive into the actual records and vinyl and all that; DJ sets on YouTube and SoundCloud.”
These aren’t empty words. In much the same way she rummages through the piles of knick-knacks at the salvage store – she’s already found a lamp and a table – PinkPantheress picks over long-established styles with a magpie-like curiosity, searching for elements that excite and inspire her. “The beat might be drum’n’bass, but the writing style might be something you’d hear in a hyperpop song, or early-00s Paramore or Panic! at the Disco,” she explains. “I’m picking my favourite musical attributes from certain genres, bands and artists, and combining them.”
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Necklace: Butler and Wilson
"What I’m trying to do is get everyone to realise that you know my music, but you don’t know me"
The anthemic just for me is a shining example of this all-embracing approach, and her biggest track to date; a UKG-indebted gem with cross-generational appeal. (So much appeal that it was crowned breakout track of the summer by TikTok due to its usage in 2.2m videos.) It’s a fine showcase of her voice, too: enthralling as ever and featherlight, as if she’s singing to herself and we, the listeners, just so happen to be passing by.
The tune was produced by London-based musician Mura Masa, AKA Alex Crossan, who’s known for his collaborative alchemy, having worked with artists like Nao, Clairo and Charli XCX. “He asked me what I was looking for and I think I said, ‘Craig David,’” says PinkPantheress, recounting their conversations ahead of the track’s casual creation – it was made in one sitting, in about four hours, and released two weeks later. “She’s got such an organic way of making and releasing music, I had forgotten what it felt like to have that spontaneity injected into the music,” Crossan elaborates over email. He also details their first meet: tea at a local cafe, where they talked and listened to the first Panic! at the Disco album.
Within weeks of its release, just for me was sampled by former Crack Magazine cover star Central Cee. “The one word I’ve got to describe him is ‘rockstar’,” says PinkPantheress, who’s a fan of the west London rapper’s (sort of) remix, Obsessed with You. “I’ve never said it out loud, but I’ve always wanted to be a sampled artist.” In her own work, PinkPantheress frequently samples and loops other artists (Just Jack, Crystal Waters and Sweet Female Attitude, to name a few) with the production technique somewhat integral to her DIY sound. But her sample usage has been met with criticism in some quarters: earlier this year, she teased the now-inescapable Break It Off on TikTok. The tune samples Circles – a 1995-released jungle classic from Adam F, which in itself sampled Bob James’ 1976 track Westchester Lady. At the time, PinkPantheress was just experimenting, however some users claimed that she’d “stolen” the instrumental from the Breakbeat Kaos co-founder.
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Dress: Ushi Couture
The comments stemmed from a place of confusion, possibly, surrounding the sampling process itself. But also, as PinkPantheress rightfully points out, “people don’t like the idea of someone being successful from someone else’s work”. It’s a topic she’s open to discussing, and an opinion she understands – hence why she never bit back. “In a way, I have to agree with them,” she offers. “Even though what I was doing was technically sampling, it was still lazy producing.”
Still, the vitriol from TikTok – which attracts a new breed of commentator; harsher than their Twitter-based counterparts, and harsher still than those on Instagram – further validated her pursuit of privacy. “I don’t want people to be too familiar with me, not because I’m cold or because I’m not friendly – I try to be as nice as I can,” she says. “It’s just the internet can be cruel; it can make assumptions. I’m not trying to have assumptions being made about me that aren’t true.”
There is one assumption that feels worthy of discussion. PinkPantheress is a Black woman, born to a Kenyan mother and white British father. As more photos of her find their way online, some listeners are expressing surprise, shock and, later, excitement upon finding out she’s non-white, as it seems they’d expected her to be. Another comment, for instance, reads: “[PinkPantheress] being black is one of the biggest W’s of 2021”.
“To be honest, I’m not surprised that people are surprised, I very much expected it,” she says matter-of-factly. “There aren’t many Black women in alternative spaces. That’s obviously the reason they were surprised in the first place.” She’s quick to praise Willow Smith and Rico Nasty, plus UK stars Bree Runway and Shygirl; artists who indeed thrive in more ‘alternative’ spaces, but not due to the accessibility of their music, or a kind of undigestableness, but because – for the most part – the mainstream has yet to fully open up to them.
“It’s always great to see talent come up that just happens to also be Black,” says PinkPantheress, pondering their careers as well as her own. “It’s amazing for representation. I’ve never had anyone say to me [in real life], ‘It’s great that you’re Black and you’re making this kind of music.’ To read it online, it’s nice that people are considering that when they listen to my music. Also, I say the n-word in a song, and I think people thought, ‘Why is she singing the n-word?’ Because they didn’t realise I wasn’t white.”
Of course, as her profile grows and it becomes harder to stay in the shadows, there are exciting signs that PinkPantheress is ready to soften her boundaries just a touch and invite her fans deeper into her creative world. First up, there’s the just for me video, a lo-fi, 00s-esque clip that feels like it’s been cribbed from the MTV vaults – in short, a crucial, stylish levelling up. Then there’s her Collections cover shoot. Both take place a few weeks after our initial chat. When we catch up again, immediately after the shoot, bathed in autumn sunshine, I mention the next big step: her debut mixtape, to hell with it. It prompts a smile so bright it rivals the unseasonable weather.
Capable of yanking you out of your seat soul-first, to hell with it transports you somewhere else entirely. For her agemates or older, it’s likely they are returned to their pastel-hued childhood bedrooms as they experience life-altering firsts – love, loss, heartbreak – once more, this time through the lens of PinkPantheress. For still-teenage listeners, experiencing all this for the first time, her music offers a bingeable and relatable soundtrack to their own coming-of-age sagas. Nostalgia before nostalgia, a familiarity that’s comforting even if you can’t yet relate to the lyrics.
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Much of PinkPantheress’ appeal stems from her being a conduit between generations and genres. She’s not the first to interpolate much-loved club sounds into her music, but it’s strange to think her patchworked production style may have travelled further than many did in their heydays. It’s spurred on an old-school type of musical discovery that feels deeper and truer than any algorithm. Fans may work backwards and discover classic UKG cuts through her drum patterns, say, or the work of Adam F through that sample. Or they may just be content to stay in PinkPantheress’ own universe and never knowingly make the wider connections. It doesn’t really matter. Much like her musical heroes, PinkPantheress uses her experiences (and imagination) to connect with listeners – not through overly poetic or whip-smart wordplay, but just through being frank and vulnerable.
With all this in mind, it would be natural for PinkPantheress to be a little apprehensive about the mixtape’s release. Or the reception from her hundreds of thousands of fans, all of whom have observed each career milestone from behind their screens, and are itching for more. But nervous she’s not. “It’s a nice little chill tape,” she offers breezily. “Not too much pressure on it.”