Zendaya Tries 'Something New': Growing Up

The 19-year-old singer talks new R&B sound, social media, and being a role model

“I want to try something new,” Zendaya croons on her latest single, “Something New.” The song’s theme of breaking with the past might seem a touch ironic, considering that it samples and shadows TLC’s brassy classic “Creep,” a hit before Zendaya Coleman was born. But as the first taste of the 19-year-old performer's forthcoming second album, "Something New" is a perfectly sultry bridge to the world of adult R&B. As on last year's Timbaland-produced one-off “Close Up” – a twitchy, fun house mirror of a song – the message is that Zendaya is ready to reveal more of herself to the world.

After her first album, Zendaya was at a crossroads. “I took a lot of time to think about how I was going to let people understand my growth," she says. "I want people to see me in a mature light, but obviously not, like, crazy." When you’re a Disney Channel star who’s been making and releasing music since you were 13 years old, sometimes it can be hard to transition into doing projects that better reflect the realities of your non-PG-13 adult life. Christina Aguilera had her leather-chapped, sexy debut with “Dirrty,” Selena Gomez took a role in Harmony Korine’s bro-tastic Spring Breakers, and Miley Cyrus, well, you know the deal. But Zendaya is taking it slow, making music about subject matter “more real” to her while still being aware of the expectations put on Disney stars and what’s appropriate for her fans to hear.

While a younger Zendaya appeared in a Kidz Bop video and sang music on her Disney show, Shake It Up, the Oakland-born singer's first studio album made its way to the public in 2013, when she was 17. A tight collection of electro-pop dance songs produced by people like Jeremih collaborator Mick Schultz and Harmony Samuels (Ariana Grande's "The Way"), the album generated a platinum hit with “Replay.” It was easy to hear that there was a bigger star underneath the cookie-cutter pop song — one hungry for material that could connect her to a wider audience. “There’s only so much you can talk about at age 16. I wasn’t even allowed to date yet!” Zendaya says, laughing. “The new album is obviously a little harder."

“People don’t really know who I am other than through Disney Channel,” she explains — something that’s bound to change with a new album on the way and a lead role in the new Spider-Man reboot. Her sophomore album, title still pending, is distinctly an R&B record (which includes an arsenal of hit-making industry veterans including Diane Warren and Babyface); for Zendaya, the album is a new iteration, a new image that is more her. “You sort of go through a series of tests – tests of your personality, of your strength,” Zendaya says about making her album. But she says she wasn't intimidated at the prospect of working with artists like Timbaland and Warren. “You think they’d be like, Oh, I know everything, this is how it’s done,” she says. “They’ve really let me be creative.”

Zendaya’s vocal social media presence (which includes over 6 million Twitter followers) is a big reason that people know about her outside of the Disney circuit. She famously used Twitter to issue a thoughtful response to racist comments that Fashion Police’s Giuliana Rancic made about her hair; Zendaya also posts frequently about American politics and excellently calls out trolls. Her deft use of Twitter places her alongside Amandla Stenberg and Rowan Blanchard in the ever-growing crew of politically vocal young stars who prove that teen girls use social media in ways outside of Nancy Jo Sales’s stunted definitions. “I feel like I’ve finally understood its power,” Zendaya says of her online platform. “We can have fun and tell jokes, but I want us as young people to use it as a platform to speak about things we really care about. I ultimately want to be part of a process that educates young people on using Twitter as a positive platform.”

Taking on a bona fide role model responsibility on top of being an artist and an actress is something Zendaya says she wanted. “Anyone who says they got into this industry and didn’t ask for it – well, if you’re getting into this and people know your name, you’re asking for it,” she says, a real seriousness in her voice. “This job is a gift. I get to be a part of young people’s lives and possibly make it better.” The number of people drawn to Zendaya for reasons outside of her work makes it clear that she's a beacon for fans of any age who value a no-bullshit approach to being a young celebrity. And while we already know who Zendaya is, we’re just beginning to hear who she is, and who she can be, in her music.