Why I’m Not Mad at Syd for Making Mainstream R&B

I value originality in music over almost all else. It’s what first drew me to The Internet; not only for how they seamlessly introduced elements of neo soul and jazz into skater-influenced hip-hop culture on Ego Death, but for their refreshing twists on these songs during their live jam sessions.

When the group’s leader, Syd, announced her solo debut, Fin, this past January, I expected the project to break new ground, pushing the boundaries of my music library and further stretching the definition of “R&B.” Two months later, after listening to Fin for the first time during a long drive up the California coast, I instead heard a collection of songs that would fit in better on the radio than on any of my Internet-filled playlists.

Eventually, the material on Fin grew on me as I altered my expectations for future listens, but there was always something holding me back for championing the material: I didn’t need Syd to make Fin.

There are thousands of artists who could craft the hazy, trap-influenced sound on “All About Me”; only a handful could create “Pupil | The Patience.” I’m all for artistic growth and exploring new creative lanes, but there have been far too many stories of talented artists forsaking their musical base in search of money and fame.

I feared Syd was next.

Making music with a wider, more mainstream appeal is certainly an easier and quicker way to attain wealth and notoriety, but during this process there’s often something very important that gets left behind. For instance, take Vic Mensa. While the rapper slash activist deserves praise for coming full circle on his newly-released debut, The Autobiography, for the longest time, the budding Chicago star had caused fans constant turmoil. Like many, I got to know Vic through INNANETAPE and later became obsessed with his work on the now-defunct Kids These Days classic, Traphouse Rock, but I barely recognized his raging vocals on “U Mad.” I’m not the only one, either. In a recent interview with Billboard, Vic admitted that, at one point, he was straying too far away from himself, going so far as to scrap the album he was working on at the time “because it didn’t represent me.”

Unlike Vic, Syd has always been straightforward about her musical influences and her infatuation with pop-minded artists and acts like Usher, *NSYNC, and Britney Spears. As she told Zane Lowe on his Beats 1 program on Apple Music, “Everything you do as an artist is going to end up being a culmination of your influences, whether you like it or not.” Recognizing that none of her solo material would make sense “as an Internet album,” Fin was Syd’s attempt at exploring her own musical identity, showing fans what she individually brought to the table.

The concept of staying true to one’s self runs deep throughout the Odd Future family, especially in the group’s heyday in the face of criticism for their brash lyrics and antics. Syd capitulating her desire to change styles simply to please me or any other Internet fan would fly in the face of this mantra, essentially negating what endeared her to so many. When falling in love with an artist for the way they embrace artistic freedom, one has to support that artist in their pursuit of said freedom — as long as the attempt appears to be pure and unadulterated.

Beyond my own personal taste, Syd’s efforts to craft mainstream music also faced resistance from industry types. In an interview with NME, the 25-year-old revealed that most of Fin was actually written for other artists. Despite her reputation as a GRAMMY-nominated (Ego Death) artist, a number of singers passed on her material. “It was like, ‘maybe I need to put this out myself’ just to show people I can write this kind of music,” she told the magazine. “So I consider my album a menu of my services.”

Fin wasn’t Syd’s disingenuous attempt to capitalize on her group’s success and attract more listeners for herself. Rather, she had something to prove to herself, and to the people who doubted her versatility.

Seeing The Internet perform live recently after several of their members had released various solo projects, I was further convinced that their motives were in the right place. There was no tension between group members onstage, no signs of jealousy or competition. If the crowd wasn’t reacting enough to Steve Lacy’s guitar chords from his short EP, Syd was right there as his hype man to bring back the energy. Matt Martians didn’t sulk in the background when organic drums were replaced with booming 808s during Syd’s solo time, he reveled in the resonance with the crowd.

Similar to what the world wide web has done for countless young people through social media, The Internet has given each of its five group members a platform to express their creativity. For years they’ve done it together, but now they’ve proven they’re capable of finding individual success as well. After hearing them build their own projects according to their own inspirations, fans will have a clearer image of what each artist brings to the table when they finally reunite for their next group album.

If Syd’s new single “Bad Dream/No Looking Back” is any indication, her upcoming album, Always Never Home, will bring more of the same modern, digitized sound as its predecessor. This time around, though, I’ll be fully on board from the jump.

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Originally published at djbooth.net on September 5, 2017.

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