What a glorious conundrum Sydney Bennett is — a star who burns brighter the deeper she fades into something else. In the early days of Odd Future, Bennett — then working under the name Syd Tha Kid — was one of the group’s most arresting presences, even though she was mostly staying motionless and parked behind the DJ tables while them boys around her were going ripshit nuts. When Syd started her own project, she didn’t rap; she made hazy utopian soul-funk with fellow Odd Future satellite Matt Martians. And that group didn’t come into its own until it became a full-on band, something that happened around the time of the 2015 album Ego Death. The director Rick Famuyiwa is rumored to have written Syd a role in the 2015 indie comedy Dope, and she didn’t take it, but her absence still hangs like a presence over the movie. Last year, with the Internet on pause, Syd released Fin, a hard-strutting album of slick post-trap R&B, and its strongest singles were collaborations with her Internet bandmates. And now that she’s back in the Internet, Syd seems to be consciously relegating herself to role-player status, even after hundreds of millions saw her grinning sheepishly in Drake’s “Nice For What” video. It was the right move. If Syd sounded like a star on Fin, she sounds even more like one now.
The Internet have always sounded confident. You have to be confident to give yourself a band name like that, especially if you’re making dazed aquarian R&B in an instant-gratification streaming age. They have reason to be confident. Ego Death was a career breakthrough — a dizzy and fully realized piece of work that succeeded in capturing the audience it deserved. (As happens more often than we’d like to admit, critics like me were the ones who were late on Ego Death; the kids in the cult got it right away.) And last year, growing their empire in ways that recall plenty of rap crews of years past (Odd Future included), the different members of the band ventured out on their own, releasing solo albums or side projects. Guitarist Steve Lacy, still a teenager, produced tracks for Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole on his iPhone. And maybe it’s just my imagination, but I hear all the swagger that must come from vast success bleeding through on Hive Mind.
Hive Mind is very much a band album — the work of a group of musicians who have grown comfortable with each other, playing in rooms together and pushing each other and trusting their own ideas. (In the “Come Over” video, the members of the Internet live together in a suburban house, like the Monkees, and it seems goofily plausible.) The different members of the group switch off instruments throughout the album, and all of them get songwriting credits. Bennett might be the breakout star of the group, but she doesn’t act like it. She doesn’t post front-and-center on the album cover, and she doesn’t even sing lead on many of the songs, including lead single “Roll (Burbank Funk).” The sound is an easy, relaxed, definitively Californian blur, a sexily contented sigh.
Musically, the entire album works on a slow simmer. The basslines are warm and slow and full-bodied; as often as not, they function as the lead instrument, if anything functions as the lead instrument. The drums, both electronic and not, don’t keep time; they patter in off-kilter, counterintuitive, Dilla-esque ways. The guitars, humid and gluey, work as accents and layers. Horns and keyboards waft through everything. Nothing forces its way through the mix. Nothing demands attention. There are serious hooks on the album, but it still plays together as an extended suite, and it can be hard to tell where the songs begin or end.
Through all of that, Syd floats, always sounding like part of the mix, never above it. She’s not an overpowering singer. Instead, she delivers her lines in a sleepy-eyed mutter, smothering her voice with reverb and echo. Some of the album’s lyrics work as vague and spacey state-of-the-world musings: “I can’t be sure / Not anymore / Today or tomorrow / What we gon’ do.” More often, though, she’s a player, quietly scheming on how to separate women from their clothes. She’ll paraphrase Prince or Lil Wayne, and sometimes she’ll just come strong and direct: “My groove right, I might snatch up ya wife smooth like it’s nothin to me.” “Girl, you got me wondering if we should be more than friends,” she ventures at one point, and it doesn’t sound like she’s wondering anything. I love how she describes taking someone out on a date on “Mood”: “My crib is close, I just cleaned / I text my bros, they wish me luck.” And even on her bitterest breakup songs, she sounds like she’s kicking pickup lines.
Syd is never a political songwriter. You don’t have to be a political songwriter when you’re a gay black woman. It’s implicit; just existing in public is a political act. But she makes that sound breezily effortless. Still, the expansive meditation “It Gets Better” might be the album’s most significant song. Syd never explicitly positions the song as an LGBTQ anthem, even if she adapts the language of that viral campaign from a couple of years ago. Instead, she sings generally about political struggle: “Sit up and fix your face / You see me, I’m OK.” Big Rube, the rumbling spoken-word poet whose mythic words helped nudge so many OutKast and Goodie Mob records toward Valhalla, shows up to grumble supportively: “The trials we face bring pain and sorrow but resistance sires strength.” But for once, he’s not the one bringing the world-weary wisdom. That’s all Syd.
Hive Mind is out 7/20 on Columbia. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Ty Segall and White Fence’s psych-rock superfriends team-up Joy.
• Wild Pink’s impressionistic, tranquil indie rocker Yolk In The Fur.
• Nathan Salsburg’s gorgeous instrumental guitar meditation Third.
• World’s Fair’s warehouse-rap opus New Lows.
• Skeletonwitch’s full-bodied metal roar Devouring Radiant Light.
• Buddy’s considered rap LP Harlan & Alondra.
• Ovlov’s melodic noise-rock return Tru.
• The Cradle’s orchestral guitar-pop LP Bag Of Holding.
• Mutilation Rites’ death metal ripper Chasm.
• Liars’ score for the movie 1/1.
• Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne’s score for the TV show Queen Of The South.
• Katie Ellen’s Still Life EP.