Tori Kelly Is Wearing Y2K On Her Sleeve, And She’s Never Felt More Like Herself

Everything Tori Kelly did and subsequently learned about herself in the last 10 years of her Grammy-winning career led to Tori, her seven-song EP released on July 28.

Kelly unveiled a return to her natural brunette hair and R&B roots with “Missin U” in March. The video oozes Y2K, from the Juicy Couture Sidekick she adored as a preteen and performance shots saluting Aaliyah, Destiny’s Child, Missy Elliott, and TLC. Ecstatic fans saw a “new” Kelly, while Kelly saw the “nerdy” 2000s kid who desperately wanted to express herself this way but needed time to develop the necessary confidence.

“I have a childhood picture of myself in my closet,” Kelly told Uproxx days before staging her The Take Control Tour and dropping the deluxe version of Tori, which is due out on September 15. “Every day, I’ll get dressed, and I look at her, and I’m like, ‘I feel like she’d be proud.'”

Below, Kelly explained the deeper meaning behind her Y2K aesthetic.

To start, I have a theory to run by you: Our age group has a unique relationship with Y2K because, technically, we were alive and lived through it, but we weren’t old enough to really know what was going on, so we can romanticize it and have an even stronger sense of nostalgia for it.

Wow. I think you nailed it. I’ve never heard it put like that. That was on the nose.

What about Y2K fascinates you?

There is something about our generation and being a nineties kid — I mean, a nineties baby, I should say. It’s exactly what you said. I was growing up in the 2000s and very aware of things. There were people in pop culture and what was cool, the different outfits and the fashion and the music, where I was still this nerdy little kid. I’m more looking up to it and watching TRL all the time being like, Ugh, I want to be in a music video one day. So I definitely agree with the fantasizing part, and I think that’s why it’s so fun now as an adult to kind of pull from that era and just have fun with it because it’s all the things that I loved growing up.

When your Y2K-themed 30th birthday party happened last December, had you already decided Y2K was going to be the predominant aesthetic for Tori?

Yeah, I was playing with some ideas. That was definitely a theme for this music — that nostalgic Y2K thing. A lot of that music was done by then. When my birthday came up, I wasn’t going to automatically do a Y2K theme, but as it was getting closer, I was like, Shoot, I don’t have a theme. I love themes for birthdays. I think a friend of mine was like, “What if you just did Y2K?” They didn’t even know that I was already kind of in that headspace for my [EP], and I was like, you know what? That’d actually be perfect because I’m literally going into that whole vibe with my music.

I imagine living in Jon Bellion’s basement while working on Tori helped dismantle any barriers to self-expression because you were just rolling out of bed into the studio. What was he able to help you produce sonically that perfectly complemented the visual vibe you were going for?

I think this whole world really started with Jon and I, to be honest, because I came into the studio being a huge fan of Jon already. But I came in hoping he would understand all the things that I love and what I want to bring to the table, which he totally did, and he brought out even more of myself. I would say I came in with a pretty open mind. The only thing that I really wanted was big songs. I literally walked in, I was like, “I’m ready to step back into this pop space,” or pop/R&B. I knew I wanted that feel, and I knew I just wanted big songs that you could sing along to in your car. I wanted to blast my own music in my car, just having the time of my life, not any particular lyrical theme.

But as we started writing, I realized that this theme of confidence kept coming up. And I was like, This feels really good to step into these different versions of myself that have been a part of me for so long, but I haven’t really shown yet. I’ve always kind of been known as this type of girl, but people have never seen sides of me that are very authentic to me and how I grew up. I think that’s where the Y2K vibe came in because women back then just oozed confidence. When I think of Aaliyah, Missy Elliott, and TLC, and all these females in that R&B space, I remember their confidence being what stood out to me — how they carried themselves.

Is this the most authentically yourself you’ve ever felt?

I’ve heard it said a bunch of times, “Your thirties are where you really figure out who you are.” I definitely think that has happened. I’m just better at knowing what I want and saying no, being more sure of myself, I guess. I still haven’t figured everything out, but stepping more into myself has been a theme. Not being scared to explore these different sides. They’ve been there this whole time. I just maybe didn’t have enough confidence to show it. And also, everything I’ve done has led up to this.

I’ve seen so many people comment they’re loving your “new style,” but this is not new to you at all.

Yeah, no, that’s literally what it feels like. I totally get why it would feel new to most people, and people have come up to me and said, “I’ve been waiting for this!” Some people saw it in me, and then other people [think] this is so new. I’m having fun with it. My main thing all along has been, it has to feel authentic, and I never would want to do anything that doesn’t feel like I’m being myself. I always try to check in with myself.

It’s funny. I have a childhood picture of myself in my closet. Every day, I’ll get dressed, and I look at her, and I’m like, “I feel like she’d be proud. She’d be really excited about everything I’m doing because this was her dream.”

What was your adolescent style?

Well, speaking of childhood photos, there’s one I just saw where I did rock the bucket hat, and I rock bucket hats now. I had that one down.

Is there an outfit you’ve rocked this year that you don’t think you would’ve been confident enough to wear before now?

I think all the fits in the “Missin U” music video, especially that red look with the slicked-back hair. I think it’s something that I would’ve looked at and been like, “Oh, that looks cool.” I would’ve liked it, but it wouldn’t have fit the music I was doing. Now, it feels so authentic. It is such a direct connection to the actual music. The style in that video, that’s definitely something I’ve always loved, but it just wouldn’t have made sense to wear those things. I am really into puffer vests lately, too. They’re fun to perform in.

The metallic silver one in the “Missin U” video is awesome.

Why was everything silver in Y2K?

It’s giving Zenon: Girl Of The 21st Century.

Yes! Oh my gosh. “Zetus Lapetus!”

So, you mention those elements from the “Missin U” video. The metallic puffer coat, the monochrome sets — so many monochrome sets — obsessed with it all. What is your favorite characteristic of Y2K clothing and style?

I definitely love the metallics. I feel like purple has been a theme for me, too, with this album. I just remember seeing a lot of purple back in the day. It’s really fun for me to play with masculine/feminine, which is something I think about in Y2K. I think of Aaliyah, who had such a dope tomboy style, but she also could be super girly and feminine. So I think things like that are a fun part of the 2000s that I like to play with. Just that duality.

What Y2K Easter eggs are in the “Cut” video?

It was less obvious. Sonically, that song is already so Y2K. I mean, you got Timbaland on it [and] Rodney Jerkins. We really went all out — super inspired by Craig David as well. With fashion, we injected some of that Y2K style, especially in that club scene at the end.

Who would your Y2K Style Icon Award go to?

A hybrid between Aaliyah and throwback Gwen Stefani.

You’re starting your The Take Control Tour. How have you taken back control?

I love that question. My style is one way I’ve taken back control, just kind of doing things that I want to do and wearing things I want to wear because I like ’em and they’re fun. Even if later on, I’m like, “That maybe wasn’t the vibe.” Taking some risks.

And I think my hair is a way that I’ve taken back control — going back to my natural color and rocking my big curls. Musically, taking control of my sound and really honing in on what the sound is that I want to put out? What’s the music that I want to make? I’ve been doing this too long to not be doing what I want, then have regrets later. It’s felt really good.

I think, even just from a literal sense, taking control of a stage. I’ve missed performing so much. That’s what I’m looking forward to doing: being on tour, performing, doing what I love, and really owning that stage, connecting with my fans, and having fun with them. It’s just been so long.

In “Young Gun,” you and Jon sing, “To stay forever young / Is a war that’s never won,” and that song is obviously heavy and so much more meaningful than how I’m about to equate it to self-expression and style. But in relation to Y2K, how do you discern between healthy nostalgia and clinging to the past at the expense of growing?

Whoa. Some of these questions require an hour of me writing notes and sifting through my thoughts. I guess it is a fine line, but what makes it make sense in my mind — aesthetically, and everything I’m doing with Y2K, what’s exciting about it is I’ve noticed those trends were already sort of happening with the younger generation. They’re totally dressing like Y2K, and they were being born [then].

This stuff is fascinating to me, generational stuff, because I remember my mom tripping out that skinny jeans were back in from her generation. She was like, “Oh my gosh! That’s so eighties. Y’all are wearing skinny jeans?” And I was like, “What do you mean?” As a kid, I was like, “That’s not weird.” And so, now, it’s just funny being on the other side of that. I am proud to be in the generation that got to live through all these music trends and fashion trends that are in again. This is exciting because I get to wear what I would’ve worn if I was cool enough as a kid, but also I get to be one of the ones bringing those sounds back and being really inspired by all of those artists from that time. I see it more as an honor. I don’t feel stuck in the past.

It’s like you’ve said earlier: It required growth in your music and in yourself to get to a point where you felt confident enough to revisit that time, so growth is inherent in doing it.

Absolutely. That’s a great way to wrap up my answer.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.