Words by:
Photography: Joe Howat

On his forthcoming EP, Thinking With My Ears, Downtown Kayoto combines glossy touchstones with a raw-edged emo confessionalism as he wrestles with the aftermath of a breakup.

When speaking to Downtown Kayoto, the 23-year-old singer, rapper and producer who dreams up sun-soaked R&B from his childhood bedroom in Hull, you get the sense that he’s not usually given to bouts of self-doubt. “I’m capable of everything and anything – my mum told me that,” he beams.

The fast-rising artist, born Chiko Chinyadza, recently tested this confidence by two-stepping out of his comfort zone to learn dance choreography for the video of his disarmingly addictive single Came Thru. The track opens with seductive whispering, reminiscent of N*E*R*D’s 2004 bop She Wants to Move – which isn’t a coincidence. Early-aughts R&B and hip-hop dominated the moodboard for his forthcoming EP Thinking With My Ears, hence the dancing. “I want to have my little Justin Timberlake, Usher moment right now,” explains Chinyadza, who did musical theatre as a kid but had zero dance experience. “I can’t just dabble in that world and reference the sound without bringing the energy, especially with where I want to go.”

Born near Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, Chinyadza’s family relocated to England during his early years and settled in Hull when he was primary school age. Musically, his parents didn’t like “anything that was too UK” and so it was international stars like Michael Jackson or Kylie Minogue he was exposed to first. This is why, he theorises, he sings in an American-leaning accent that belies his upbringing. “I was thinking about it the other day and like, I’m not from London, and so where’s my reference point?” he ponders. “I grew up in Birmingham, Grimsby and Hull, and never picked up the accent. So for the music, it was like: let’s go back. What do I remember? TLC, Usher, Timberlake… Those are my reference points. So that’s how I’m going to sing.” 

On Thinking With My Ears, Chinyadza, who also completed a biochemistry degree last year, combines glossy touchstones with a raw-edged emo confessionalism; he’s both heartbroken and self-aware as he wrestles with the aftermath of a breakup. “The biggest theme of this EP was confident vulnerability – not shying away from displaying how you feel,” says Chinyadza, who glides from in-his-feels to in-his-zone across its eight tracks, ruminating on emotional needs and unsaid truths (Came Thru), misplaced trust (Trust U) and shedding tears (a recurring topic) over skippy instrumentals as buoyant and bright as a soft-play centre. Where past releases like 2021’s NAVIG8 and last year’s Learning in Public captured a coming-of-age era marked by exploratory intentions and a wider creative toolkit (think distorted guitars, angsty vocals and fluctuating tempos), Thinking With My Ears feels more focused. It’s his tightest, poppiest release yet. “If NAVIG8 was me figuring it out, and Learning in Public was me getting it wrong, then Thinking With My Ears is me having figured it out and knowing where I’m going,” he asserts.

Chinyadza is unwavering in his pop stardom ambitions, envisioning Coachella slots, prime time TV appearances and the kind of auteur status conferred on his heroes like Tyler, the Creator and Pharrell Williams. He sees no conflict in marrying open-hearted confessionals and everyday relatability with A-list charisma and high production values. And there’s no time to waste – he even aims to have new music in the bag before his EP lands this summer. “So as soon as it’s [here],” he says with a knowing smirk, “it’s like, boom, we go again.” 

Sounds like: Star-powered pop-R&B which draws from the past but thrives in the present
Soundtrack for: Summer road trips with the windows down, or late-night drives with the volume up
File next to: Rio Rainz, The Kid Laroi, Jordan Ward
Our favourite song: Came Thru
Where to find him: @downtownkayoto

Thinking With My Ears is out on 18 July via Other Projects