By Miles Raymer
Updated October 10, 2014 at 06:30 PM EDT

Aquarius, released this week, may be Tinashe’s first proper album, but she’s far from a rookie in the entertainment game. The 21-year-old singer got her start early as an actor, appearing in Robert Zemeckis’s CGI Christmas flick The Polar Express and the Bob Dylan-starring surrealist sci-fi project Masked and Anonymous before being recruited at age 14 to join a manufactured teen-pop group. That may not sound like a very auspicious start for a serious music career, but she says it was valuable nonetheless. “I think I learned a lot being in a situation where I wasn’t necessarily able to create music that was totally true to who I was or to present the person who I was,” she says over the phone from her home in Los Angeles.

If anything, her time in The Stunners helped give Tinashe a good idea of what she didn’t want to do when she struck out on her own. After the group split up in 2011 she started working on solo material in her home studio, sans record contract. “When you’re part a group,” she says, “it’s definitely a group effort, creatively. When I wasn’t signed to a record label I was free to make my own decisions. I definitely felt the need to create stuff on my own and just do things and make my own decisions and just put things out there. It was a really important step for me because it really opened the door so that now I have so much creative control in my art.”

A string of self-released mixtapes followed, allowing her to build up a fan base without a label’s interference and to give listeners “a taste of who I was as an artist.” By the time she released her third, Black Water, last fall she’d been signed to RCA and started working on Aquarius. “Some of these songs I’ve been sitting on and working on for months and months and months and months,” she says. “I’m just excited to get it out there.”

Aquarius is remarkable for the number and breadth of collaborators who contributed to it: EDM wunderkind Cashmere Cat, behind-the-scenes hitmakers Stargate, indie-soul auteur Devonté Hynes, and avant-electronic producer Evian Christ, alongside hip-hop A-listers like Mike Will Made It, Future, and A$AP Rocky, who all helped to create an album that sprawls stylistically but maintains a remarkably coherent identity. It also features DJ Mustard, whose chart-dominating formula helped make her Schoolboy Q-featuring “2 On” one of the breakout songs of the summer and a bracing change from the more subdued material on her mixtapes. “I just wanted to put out a song that I could dance to,” she says. “And it’s definitely still stay true to who I am as an artist, just the melodies and the way the whole song is presented. I definitely don’t like to be stuck in a box.”

Still, she’s more than the sum of her collaborators. Since she started home recording she’s been teaching herself how to produce her own music. “I don’t need anybody else to create my own material,” she says. “I can literally do it all myself.”