Black, gay, Mohawk-haired and androgynously-named, the very existence of Syd in the world of hip-hop can seem like a statement, especially today in Trump’s America. And her first solo album has plenty to say, sonically, sexually and socially.
Syd is Sydney Bennett, sometimes known as Syd The Kyd. Though only 24, this DJ, producer and performer has been dancing on the edge of the spotlight since her teens when she joined the LA hip-hop collective Odd Future. About five years ago she and Odd Future colleague Matt Martians formed The Internet, a contemporary R&B group in which, as main singer, she played a far more central and visible role. Now, with the release of Fin, her first solo album – and on a major label to boot – Syd is stepping right into the glare.
Yet on first hearing, this solo move seems almost tentative. A track like ‘Shake ‘Em Off’ which opens the album, finds Bennett apparently counselling herself, as she drowns in doubt and anxieties, the anxious mood underscored by a nervously fragmented rhythm and a close-miked, stuck-inside-her-head vocal.
If any of Syd’s insecurities are to do with her voice, they are unfounded. Sure, she’s not a technical singer, not a soul diva, but that’s all in her favour. Her approach, though melodic, is much closer to rapping - all cadence and character. And she pushes her voice to the front of tracks like these, exposing the imperfections rather than blanding them out with Auto-Tune like so many of her contemporaries. Not that this producer/technician is averse to a little digital alchemy; only she applies this – like everything she does – in an idiosyncratic way. The most pervasive trick she uses – one that could easily be interpreted as a statement in itself – is to pitch-lower her voice so that it sounds thoroughly masculine, used to comic effect in the sexy ‘Smile More’.
If the trick deliberately messes with gender, it also recalls a feature of classic R&B that’s been almost forgotten in recent times. The bass vocals in tracks like this one are only a slightly exaggerated version of what you used to get on old Temptations or O’Jays records – and I’m glad Syd’s bringing it back.
Going back even even further, I hear echoes of Billie Holiday in ‘Got Her Own’. It takes its title phrase from Holiday’s song ‘God Bless The Child’ – ‘God bless the child that’s got his own’ – and makes it even more specific. Like the Holiday song, the subject of Syd’s song is self-made, standing strong in a hostile world. But here it’s even clearer that that person is a black woman; one who got what she got on her own terms, without selling herself sexually or any other way. And to Syd that’s both a role model and a turn-on.
In pre-release interviews Syd referred to this album as “not that deep” and “an in-between thing”, implying that The Internet is still her main focus. But that’s underselling an album that has real strengths of its own. It’s musically and sonically savvy, drawing on the technical expertise Syd’s gathered as composer, producer and recording engineer over all her past projects. It makes clear-eyed statements about growing up without privileges, a queer African-American woman, and how to survive in that world. It keeps coming back to the importance of kin, or at least “the family you came with”. And, in spite of some apparent reluctance, it’s ultimately an admission that, at least for now, it’s going to be all about Syd.
Songs featured: Shake Em Off, Insecurities, Know, Got Her Own, Smile More, All About Me.
Fin is available on Columbia.