In a year full of exceptional R&B releases, all looking to push the genre beyond musical and lyrical stagnation, the Internet brazenly proves itself worthy of inclusion with their deeply personal, expertly executed Ego Death. Opening with Syd tha Kyd cooing the coolly confident lines, “Now she wanna fuck me,” the Internet’s Ego Death wastes no time in showing itself to be a refreshingly modern take on the usual R&B lyrical tropes. Positioning herself as a sort of postmodern, 21st century Teddy Pendergrass or Marvin Gaye, Syd works the microphone like she’s whispering in a lover’s ear, adopting the traditionally male role and, in so doing, turning the very notion of the music on its ear.
By not calling attention to it, they practice a sort of passive resistance and resilience that allows the music to take precedent, not the gender politics. It’s an impressive move from the young group who has risen from one of the most polarizing music collectives of the 21st century. Rather than courting controversy, they simply come out of the gate as themselves, asking neither permission nor forgiveness, assured and skillful, allowing the music itself to make the greatest impact.
And while the Internet mines similar territory as many neo-soul artists currently plying their trade in the underground, they push the music beyond that of their peers from a lyrical standpoint, playing with the fluidity of gender norms and sexual identity within an often misogynistic and homophobic style. As with Frank Ocean, also a member of the now defunct Odd Future collective, the Internet doesn’t so much push back at the rampant homophobia within hip-hop and R&B as push through it, refraining from acknowledging the novel nature of their subject matter and presenting themselves unapologetically as they are, without additional comment.
Borrowing elements of hip-hop, soul and jazz, Ego Death is a fascinating amalgamation of styles and sounds that, gender politics aside, makes it one of the more compelling R&B albums in a year that has seen great work from Bilal, Miguel and D’Angelo. With complex song structures, densely woven harmonies and smooth production, Ego Death borrows the best elements from the genre’s storied history, infusing it with the same modernist take that has seen many younger performers revitalizing both jazz and soul, melding it with a hip-hop aesthetic that helps bring a style based on sampling of the latter genres full circle.
Relying on live instrumentation and arrangements that always skew just left of center, they prove themselves able torchbearers for the younger generation of neo-soul practitioners. With an effortless, silken voice, Syd is a subtle, nuanced vocalist who does not rely on bombast and melisma to convey emotion. Rather she somewhat delicately inhabits her every performance, holding back with a sort of disaffected detachment. On “Gabby”, Syd sings soothingly to the titular character who she “wanted to be the one”, but ultimately proves not to be, the song descending into a ‘60s lounge pastiche replete with driving beat.
Elsewhere, on the more traditionally hip-hop “Just Sayin iTried”, she gets deeply personal, calling out an ex-lover, informing her she “fucked up” and, despite all this, Syd finds herself “writing yet another song about you”. It’s a candidly confessional kiss-off that retains the album’s overall low-key feel. The words tumbling out effortlessly, Syd proves herself a deft vocalist, one capable of biting lyrical sentiment delivered in an airy coo of a voice that shows flashes of fluidity that puts her above many of her pop peers.
Exploring the other end of “Just Sayin iTried’s” heartache, “Girl” is a romantic slow jam worthy of the-Dream or R. Kelly, one either artist could easily tackle but that Syd makes wholly her own. While its lyrical territory is well-worn, its source and delivery are not, making both the track and Ego Death as a whole a refreshing take on contemporary R&B, blurring the lines between the traditional and the contemporary to create something very much of the moment and yet still imbued with a timeless quality. Ego Death is a subtly defiant step forward.