Yaya Bey, in Transit

The New York singer-songwriter is in a constant state of evolution on her new album, Ten Fold.

Music Features Yaya Bey
Yaya Bey, in Transit

Yaya Bey is firmly planted in the power and patience of healing—healing from the loss of her dad (rapper Grand Daddy I.U., who died in 2022); healing from the often overwhelming demands of being a breakout musician; healing from the weight of the world. It’s fitting, then, that her music closely embraces that journey—creating an intimate connection with listeners in search of the same healing.

On the 2021 EP The Things I Can’t Take with Me, the Queens-bred singer-songwriter detailed a harrowing journey of trying to love when family trauma impacts your interior life and misogynoir impacts your exterior responsibilities. On her glorious debut album, 2022’s Remember Your North Star, Bey found triumph in that struggle—affirming that the love she desires is possible. The following year, she continued that arc with Exodus the North Star, a buoyant, lovey-dovey soundscape that centered Bey completely surrendering to that love.

Now, with her new album Ten Fold, Bey kicks into a new groove: freedom. And not just any kind of freedom—she rests in a freedom of knowing when to let go when the world around you is constantly changing. Bey is ever-evolving. “I just felt maybe less in control, and I probably gave into that,” Bey says. “My life was just changing a lot—drastically and fast— and there wasn’t really anything I could do about that, so I kind of just went with the flow. I guess there’s some freedom in that, but I don’t know that it felt how I imagined freedom feeling like. It didn’t necessarily feel good all the time. But, it just felt like something I just had to surrender to.

Indeed, Ten Fold, sounds like Bey’s most liberating music to date. It’s a 16-track thesis on the essence of survival. In an Instagram post about the album, Bey described it as a “recording of the year I lost the things I thought I could not live without and the proof that I did indeed survive… and thrive.” Bey, who is always making music ( she’s already halfway done with her next album) started making Ten Fold in January 2023. “Crying Through My Teeth” was the first song she made for the LP; the track, the album’s opener, is a soothing jazz balm that sounds like something you’d hear from the most popular artist at an open mic. It’s just that poetic, and Bey introduces listeners to an artist who uses humor to cope with her struggles (“Do you want to hear a joke / See I got all this money and I’m still fuckin broke”).

Although Ten Fold is partially inspired by her father’s death, it wasn’t a primary impetus for making the album. “I was in a place where I was gonna have to make the next album anyway,” Bey says. “That’s kind of the appropriate response to the momentum is to keep the momentum going like ok we’re going to have to make another album. Then, my dad died. I guess I really just threw myself into it just to keep myself busy and distract myself. I was going to have to make it anyway, I think it may have accelerated the rate in which I made the album and how hard I went making it.”

In turn, Ten Fold sounds like the type of music you play when in dire need of motivation to get by. Sometimes it’s a cathartic gospel. Sometimes it’s a laugh-out-loud satirical croon. And other times, it’s just a free-flowing pose. Bey’s sense of humor shines. It’s a source of her survival (“things shift so much that all you can kind of do about it is try to laugh at it,” she tells me). There are songs like the laugh-out-loud “Eric Adams in the Club,” which critiques the ways in which the New York mayor seeks to be the life of the party amid residents struggling to pay rent. There’s also the super romantic “Carl Thomas Sliding Down the Wall”—a nod to the ‘90’s R&B singer whose music instantly conjures the amatory feelings that one works so hard to suppress.

Then there are the more serious ballads like “The Evidence,” which offers a poignant reminder that there are reasons to keep living. Elsewhere on the album, “Sir Princess Bad Bitch” is anchored by funky synths and an infectious confidence that makes you want to own the dance floor. It was the music Bey needed to hear at a time filled with so much uncertainty. “Before last year, I felt in limbo. I felt a little bit stuck in some ways in the past. It was hard to catch up with my life and I’m so much busier than I’ve ever been,” she says. “There are aspects and people and things missing from my life that were once in my life. With Remember Your North Star, I was like three months behind on my rent—sacrificing everything to try to have a music career. Now, I can pay my rent on time from music, which is a totally different concept. But I’m also navigating astronomical bills, where it’s like you think I would have so much more money than I do when my bills are humongous because it’s really expensive to have a music career and ‘m navigating that.”

Today, Yaya Bey is at a more comfortable place in her life, she still seeks clarity on the changes around her. “I’m a bit more settled into that and just exploring like, ‘Okay, now that I’ve gotten over the shock of the change, what is the space of my life really?’ Like what is it? And, you know, I don’t have the answers yet,” she says. Bey possesses a charming vulnerability that makes you want to know more. Her hip-hop-inspired, jazz-inflected tone is the most stunning example of that. It’s a sound that’s heavily influenced by her upbringing: a 1990’s New York where rap is the ruling sound and her segregated neighborhood is pervasive with Black culture: “Your school was Black, and your teachers were Black, there was a pride in that.”

The depths of Bey’s alto could heal any broken heart. So, it can be hard to fathom that Bey, along with her family, didn’t always believe in her vocal prowess. “I wanted to be a singer when I was younger, but I guess I just didn’t have the confidence,” she says. “Then, I decided I was going to be a songwriter. And then songwriting didn’t work out for me. Then I went back to ‘Okay, I’m gonna sing my own music.’ And that didn’t happen till I was 25. The original thought process was I’m going to make music as a songwriter. That happened when I was nine, and it just took a lot of different forms until I landed on something that worked for me.”

Bey admits that the confidence in her voice still fluctuates today because “singing is still a vulnerable thing.” And that’s especially true when what you’re singing about is even more vulnerable. When she’s not singing, though, her voice is just as powerful. Bey continues to use her platform to raise awareness about societal issues. And these days, that means advocating for people in Palestine amid the war in Gaza. Earlier this year, she pulled out of SXSW because of the festival’s U.S. Army sponsorship (“They played themselves by supporting the war criminals, and it’s Free Palestine all day where I be at,” Bey wrote in an Instagram post).

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Bey says. “I think, whether I had a music platform or not, I would have a pro-Palestine sentiment, just because they’re oppressed people, and I’m part of an oppressed group of people.” Demanding the survival of others while trying to survive on your own can be an extremely staggering task. Bey often feels the weight. But she’s not crumbling. Instead, she wants to focus on reclaiming her life—one that’s not completely fueled by capitalism. She talks about her love for cooking (she can make a mean cornbread cake) and other personal interests that she wants to prioritize.

Like most people, Bey is thoroughly seeking a healthy work-life balance, but she notes that music will always be a centerpiece. She writes songs every day because she’s constantly inspired, and she’s always brainstorming about an album. For Bey, that’s the most gratifying part of being a musician. It’s the stuff that comes after that often makes her uncomfortable—the album rollout, the press run, the live performances. If she could just make songs in her home and not worry about the rest, she would. But she’s thankful for this new era of her career, and she’s a firm believer that the work you put in comes back to you tenfold.

“I don’t think I’ll ever stop making music,” Bey says. “I just think at some point I want to be present for my life outside of music. I want to be present for my life. That’s what everybody wants. You work so much and then you miss your life so I just want to live. I think I’m really interested in myself outside of my ambition. It’s not to say that I don’t appreciate having a dream, chasing your dream, your achievement and all the yadda yadda yadda. But I don’t want that to be all that I am. I want to be present for my life.”

DeAsia Paige is an Atlanta-based music critic and culture reporter. Her writing has appeared in Pitchfork, NPR Music, Elle, Teen Vogue and more.

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