PinkPantheress calls the music she makes “new nostalgic.” It’s a fitting term for her approach, repurposing U.K. garage and music that would probably be heard in a sleazy club at 4:30 a.m. into backdrops for intimate stories of heartbreak and the confusion of late adolescence: too old to not know better, but too young to care.
Through this, the 20-year-old Londoner has become a phenomenon, propped up by her one million followers on TikTok. And while the longevity of musicians who break from the short-form video platform is yet to be determined, there have already been some assured flameouts. PinkPantheress is not one of them.
Her rise seems organic. While toiling away at university, amidst a deadly pandemic that continued to drag and drag as it swallowed a year of her young life, she began to write songs and experiment with sampling, uploading short songs on TikTok, eventually developing a huge following. For a while, no one actually knew what she looked like, and she continues to maintain her anonymity, declining to tell interviewers her name or much personal detail that could be traced back to her. But mystery is only a small component of what makes PinkPantheress captivating.
Listening to a PinkPantheress song is like finding a secret diary that was never supposed to be read. Her songs carry this sense of wistful sorrow, jaded to the world’s idealism, yet still believing good exists somewhere. She has a reluctant optimism about love and connection, as well as the intelligence to realize that life is not a romantic comedy, making her instantly relatable to anyone who grew up in a time where social media became the new journal.
But when an artist makes their name off short snippets, it begs the question: How will they hold up when the time comes to paint on a full canvas? For PinkPantheress, the answer is better than many expected. Her debut mixtape, to hell with it, isn’t a deep concept album, nor a tell-all about her life (presumably). Instead, it’s a collection of prior snippets and more fleshed-out material that proves her staying power, while also teasing her limitless potential.
PinkPantheress has an innate ability to make the simplest turn of phrase into an earth-shattering revelation. She weaponizes this power throughout the project, her sweet, silky voice making the hurt hit close to home. “I used to think we’d make it far / It turned out we are / It’s such a shame that we weren’t the same at all,” she muses solemnly on “Pain,” making it clear she’s not mad the relationship didn’t work out, she’s just disappointed.
“Break It Off”—which samples Adam F’s drum and bass classic “Circles”—cuts deep, as well. The vocal tone she uses when she says “One day I just wanna hear you say ’I like you,’ what’s stopping you?,” conjures feelings of innocent heartbreak, bewilderment, and the insecurity of putting yourself out there for another and not getting the feeling reciprocated.
“Last Valentines” sees her in a different light, using uptempo drums and dreamy grunge guitar as a backdrop for her anger over finding out her ex is with a girl he said he wasn’t interested in.
Her insightful and shy takes on unrequited love may have been the topic that helped PinkPantheress first turn heads, but it’s the tracks where she extends her reach that best illustrate her songwriting prowess. On “Passion” she sings about losing her motivation and direction due to the cruelties of the world weighing on her, partially stemming from family strife. It’s a real-time look at that moment in adolescence when young adults realize that life isn’t fair and everything isn’t guaranteed to work out, contrasted further by her observations of how the adults in her life somehow accept this notion and keep it moving. The feeling has never been captured this well, mixing the right concoction of listlessness and reluctant acceptance.
But “Nineteen” is the cornerstone of the mixtape. Recorded amid the pandemic, the song sees PinkPantheress illustrate her conflicted feelings with home and the isolation she feels when she returns there. The impact of the virus clouds the song: “My cousin just told me my favorite shop shut down,” she says with a sigh. The low bass and melancholic violins further the mood, one of the few songs that doesn’t use U.K. garage or breakbeats, reminiscent of an early-career Taylor Swift ballad.
And while the songs on to hell with it may read heavy in subject matter, rarely does PinkPantheress bask in the dour. She’s stated that Lily Allen was a huge influence on her music, and the through lines are easy to read. Even as she’s detailing a longing for a former lover on “Just for me,” she knows to add some levity by including a wacky car sound effect when she talks about getting in her car. And maybe that’s the most impressive aspect of PinkPantheress’ songcraft: her ability to keep heavy and relatable subjects light by using her wit to determine when to give the audience a short breather.
While PinkPantheress passes her debut project test with flying colors, it doesn’t mean she comes out unblemished. The bulk of the tape is about unrequited love and past flames, which can sometimes make the songs blend together due to a lack of detailed songwriting, especially with the dreamy aesthetic producing a gray haze. “All my friends know,” which features a weak hook and warbly vocals, is a notable step down in quality, where she can’t quite sell the heartache.
Normally, it would be easy to write off an artist in the vein of PinkPantheress. Her use of nostalgic samples could easily be argued as baiting, “memberberries” for a simpler time. But she sidesteps these critiques because her songwriting feels intimate, lived in and authentic. PinkPantheress’ debut is an intelligent and well-written look into the confusion of adolescence, featuring just enough new material to flash her growing talent for songwriting. The project doesn’t make any grand statements or feel like overkill hype, instead keeping consistent with her understated aesthetic and giving the listener just enough material to latch onto without bombarding them.
The shy girl who grew up on Tumblr posts has potentially become the next breakout star from TikTok, transcending the clichés of the platform and becoming a voice for her generation, whether she realizes it yet or not.
Josh Svetz is a freelance editor and clout auditor at HipHopDX, with bylines at Passion Of The Weiss, SPIN and Pitchfork. You can find him trying to revive the word “swag” and arguing about Roscoe Dash’s impact on modern music on Twitter and Instagram.