After spending her teen years in a girl group called the Stunners, singer-songwriter Tinashe earned a cult following on the basis of three acclaimed mixtapes, which swapped the commercial pop of her origins for moody, experimental R&B. Her first hit single, this year’s “2 On,” landed somewhere in between. A hazy club track with a clattering beat, it ripples with sinister energy.
Tinashe is often compared to the late singer Aaliyah, who worked from a similar binary: commercial star and sonic innovator. (A striking mononym doesn’t hurt, either.) On Tinashe’s debut album, Aquarius, out Oct. 7, the hype is well earned. With help from the cool kids of rap (Schoolboy Q, Future, A$AP Rocky, DJ Mustard), she pairs airy, drifting alterna-R&B with crisp hooks that evoke ’90s radio, as on the yearning single “Pretend” and the tense “All Hands on Deck.”
It’s a confident debut, and well timed. As mainstream R&B has been nudged into increasingly dark and inventive territory (see Beyoncé), Tinashe doesn’t even sound left of center–just right on trend.
This appears in the October 13, 2014 issue of TIME.