The song sounds like playing Tetris while stoned: pixelated percussion bricks crashing into one another at an impossibly slow tempo, a melody like a thin curl of smoke. In the middle of it all is a casually charismatic voice, so lazy you assume her vocals were recorded lying down, jumping from a low drawl to a above-it-all falsetto. “Don’t worry ’bout what I’m doing,” she sings, “what’s it to you if I live dazed and confused?” This is “Shake ’Em Off,” the first song on Fin, the excellent debut album by Syd — real last name Bennett; stage last name Tha Kyd, although she’s now going single-moniker for her solo career. “Shake ’Em Off” is a little reminiscent of the opening salvo of Rihanna’s “Consideration” — “I gotta do things my own way, darling,” — the sonic declaration of independence that kicked off last year’s Anti. The difference is that Syd, now 24, has presented herself as anti-stardom, anti-radio, and anti-compromise from day one.
Syd is a current member of the space-funk collective The Internet and a former member of the anarchistic rap pack Odd Future, which she joined when she was 16. In publicity photos and on stage, her boyish skate-punk style allowed her to blend in, but she was actually the group’s anomaly: A DJ in a group of rappers, a woman in a hypermasculine space, and a queer person in a collective often accused of homophobia, thanks to cofounder Tyler, the Creator’s much-publicized preference for a certain gay slur. When pressed in interviews, Syd would defend the group’s fuck-’em-all ethos: “They aren’t homophobic,” she once said, “they just don’t really care whether you’re offended or not.” Like fellow ex-OFWGKTA-er Frank Ocean (who has described his own sexuality as “dynamic”), Syd’s gradual drift away from the group seemed, from the outside, more aesthetic than ideological; since 2011, with The Internet, she has put out three albums of woozy, amorphous music that sounds nothing like the malcontented rap of Tyler or Earl Sweatshirt. But in an interview with The New York Times Magazine last year, Syd revealed that her last days in Odd Future hadn’t been exactly harmonious, and the strain of being an anomaly was wearing on her. “They weren’t happy about it,” she said of her departure from the group. “I was their get-out-of-jail-free card. It’s easy to say they aren’t homophobic because Syd is there.”
Her break with Odd Future allowed her to channel all her creative energy into The Internet. Their last album, 2015’s Ego Death, was an ambitious step forward. Once a duo (Syd and the producer Matt Martians were the founding members), The Internet had grown into its status as a proper, six-person band, and the once-reserved Syd had found her frontwoman swagger. The album opener “Get Away” — and the band’s memorable performance of it on Jimmy Kimmel Live! — showcased her seductive, laid-back cool. Syd explained last year in The Fader that her move toward the front of the stage had been gradual, even hesitant. “I knew that if I just came out as a singer, people would just be criticizing my voice. So we came out as like, ‘OK, we’re a duo.’ And then, ‘OK, we’re a band. Focus on the live music, please.’”
That’s not the kind of sentiment you expect from someone who was then working on a solo album, especially one as self-assured as Fin. “People crowded all around me,” she sings with a blasé shrug on the first single, “I guess it’s all about me.” The songs are a little tighter and poppier than you’d expect from The Internet, though the production still has a familiar slurry, ethereal quality. There’s a ’90s throwback vibe to Fin, undercut with a post-digital precision. The stealthy keep-it-on-the-low jam “Know” sounds like a cassingle of TLC’s “Creep” that’s warped from sitting in a hot car for too long; it’s easy to imagine the sultry “Body” on the radio sandwiched between a DJ Mustard production and an Aaliyah song. “If your friends could see you right now,” she sings with that casual confidence, “no lyin’ girl, I bet they’d wanna be you right now.”
Progress moves jerkily: fits, starts, baby steps backward, and then Usain Bolt–dashes forward that happen while you’re blinking. Pop and R&B’s attitude toward queerness and gender fluidity has shifted incredibly quickly; artists like Frank Ocean and Syd now sing about their sex lives not as though they’re triumphant and hard-won, but incredibly ordinary. In an era when even Hannah Montana believes that gender is a spectrum, it’s interesting to note that the big, broad LGBT anthems — the “Firework”s, the “Same Love”s — have, Mary Lambert chorus aside, by and large all been made by straight white people.
Like Ocean, Syd is defiantly lowercase, averse to labels in music and in life. She likes women but she’s said she doesn’t identify with the word “lesbian,” or its gatekeepers. The video for the lead-off single from The Internet’s Purple Naked Ladies, “Cocaine,” featured Syd — then still a member of Odd Future — getting high with a woman, making out with her, and then, when the woman passed out in her car, dumping her on the side of the road. The popular, now-defunct lesbian blog After Ellen criticized Syd for indulging in the same kind of anti-woman sentiment as the other members of her group, some of whom had generated controversy for rapping about rape. In hindsight, though, the “Cocaine” video seems to me like a youthful folly, and an early hint that Syd wasn’t interested in standing for anything larger than herself. (“I never really thought it was a thing,” she said a little impatiently in that Times Magazine interview, when she was asked about her sexuality. “Like I didn’t think it would be this big of a deal.”) Her persona on Fin feels like a more mature assertion of that. Being a queer black woman doesn’t automatically mean she wants to be a role model for everyone who happens to share any of those identities — that would limit her from fully being Syd. “If I go to hell,” she sings on “Nothin to Somethin,” “hope my bitches get to visit.”
“This album is not that deep,” Syd said a few months ago, in that Fader interview. “For me, this is like an in-between thing — maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.” She was definitely selling Fin short, but this is also apiece with how the other members of The Internet conceive of the work they do apart from one another. Grandiosity is gauche, and solo albums are not shots at superstardom so much as clearinghouses for their more individualistic ideas, getting them out of the way to make the creation of the next full-band album even smoother. “Once we all drop our solo projects,” Syd said, “I know we’ll all feel free to do whatever is best for the band, for the [next] Internet album. So there’s no more, ‘Ugh, I really wanna do this in a song and this [album] is my only chance to do that.’”
In spirit if not sound, The Internet are reminiscent of another free-form hip-hop collective, The Social Experiment, whose most famous member is Chance the Rapper. Chance has often made career decisions that perplex more mainstream, solo-success-minded folks: He’s turned down each of the many labels that have wanted to sign him, and instead has insisted on putting out a third mixtape not in his own name but credited to “Donnie Trumpet and the Social Experiment.” He made his debut SNL performance a showcase for other, less well-known artists in his orbit, like Francis and the Lights and Noname. Still, Chance’s charisma shines so brightly that he’s quickly becoming a solo star in spite of himself. It’s unclear if the same thing will happen to Syd — Fin is certainly proof she could make a run on her own, but, on the other hand, its lead single is an assertion that she doesn’t really want to. “Take care of the family that you came with,” she sings, atop a beat from her bandmate Steve Lacy. “People drowning all around me. So I keep my squad around me.”