“Missing Out,” the final track on Syd’s latest LP, Broken Hearts Club, is a four-minute ballad that tells the story of a lover coming to grips with a relationship that was never destined to work in the first place. In it, she details how her former lover didn’t value her in the ways she needs, how the timing of their courtship is a bit off, and how said lover will end up regretting letting a 29-year-old superstar walk out of her life. It’s a soothing track filled with strength and self-reflection and it serves as a powerful bookend to the five-year period between the release of Friday’s album and her debut solo effort, Fin. Since entering the music business more than a decade ago and forging fruitful affiliations with Odd Future and the Internet, Syd has become one of the prominent R&B voices of her generation, breaking identity barriers and traveling the world with her music. But along the way, she’s occasionally struggled with self-assurance, and after experiencing heartbreak at the height of the pandemic, she’s eager to show off her evolving relationship with inner peace.
“The space that I’ve experienced the most growth is probably in my confidence as a human being,” she says by video chat a week before the album’s release Friday. “Not as a singer. Maybe as an artist, but mostly as a human being.”
Truth is, she never wanted any of this 15 years ago, when she was just another musically inclined Los Angeles teen. “I wanted to be a producer who had as much money as all the artists,” she says. “I never wanted to be in the spotlight. I never wanted the fame. I wanted the respect and the money and the validation.” In high school, she’d periodically make beats on GarageBand in her makeshift bedroom studio, then look for folks to record. Most of the time, no one showed, so she started making reference tracks, in hopes of getting them placed. She wrote her first track when she was 16—“on a Friday night in my bedroom,” she says. By the wee hours of the following morning, she’d completed “Flashlight,” a hypnotizing love tune about teenage heartbreak. The sound was rough, but the song had potential. “I recorded it probably into my MacBook mic,” she says. “They have a stock Auto-Tune on GarageBand. I just threw that shit on there and was like, ‘Damn, this sounds like some Drake shit.’”
Eventually, her sounds made their way around the neighborhood, and her bedroom started to become studio space for local acts. One afternoon, a young kid named Tyler (who had yet to anoint himself “the Creator”) and some other friends who’d eventually become the group Odd Future showed up at her bedroom window, looking for a place to record. “I walk outside on my way to In-N-Out and there are 12 people out there on the side of the house by the studio,” she says. “I just opened the door and I didn’t say hi to anybody. I was just walking to my car and Tyler was like, ‘Oh, hey, can we use your studio?’ And I was like, ‘If you’re here when I get back, sure.’ I went to In-N-Out and when I came back, they were still standing outside, skating in the street or whatever, so I was like, ‘All right, let’s go.’”
The studio sessions started her affiliation with the collective, which included Tyler, Frank Ocean, MellowHype, and Earl Sweatshirt. Odd Future’s inception coincided with the rise of the blog era, and with no label backing, a studio release “rollout” meant that had Tyler posted a project on oddfuture.com, Myspace, and Twitter. The postings garnered a little buzz, but not enough for Tyler. During one early studio session, dissatisfied with the performance of one project, he vented to Syd. “He was like, ‘Yo, we just dropped this mixtape and we don’t have any new listeners,’ Syd recalls him saying. “‘It’s all the same people. What the fuck do I do?’”
She became the band’s de facto publicist and began to try to figure out what the hell to do next. She’d heard of some sites that promoted independent artists, like Gorilla vs. Bear, The Fader, and Complex, mostly because Tyler wasn’t getting placements on them. 2DopeBoyz, an influential MP3 blog, caught most of his ire, garnering the distinction of possibly being the first blog on the wrong side of a diss track. “It’s funny because you mention them now and it’s, ‘If you know, you know,’ but back then, it was such a big deal,” Syd says. “They were posting Tyler’s friends, but not him, so he was salty about that.” Now, it was Syd’s job to change all that. So she Googled how artists were getting on the sites and found a pattern. “I noticed that everybody on 2DopeBoyz was represented by some branding company or some PR marketing company,” she says. “I realized the difference between us and them was that they had somebody behind them so it made them look like a big deal. But I knew that these were just dudes who went to Fairfax [High] back in the day and worked at Supreme or something. It’s not that serious; we can figure this out.” Then she bought her own domain, shakechange.com. (“I was literally walking down the street one day with change in my pocket and was shaking the change,” she says. “It was like, “OK, shakechange.com.”) She then began posting the band’s projects under an alias. After a while, she even began getting publicist pitches from non-OF artists. “I got a press release for a Wiz Khalifa mixtape, and I was like, ‘Who the fuck is Wiz Khalifa? How did y’all get my email?’ Is this what rappers are doing, just spamming people?”
Now the owner of her own site, she started posting Odd Future acts, following the model of The Fader. “I went to the contact sections on all these websites,” she says. “I think I accumulated 200 email addresses and I just spammed niggas.” She Googled “press release template” and got to work. Her first assignment was to type up a short release for Odd Future affiliate Domo Genesis’s debut, Rolling Papers, and email them to publicists. The release would feature a download link and another link to the collective’s website to funnel interest to the other acts. “I sent that shit to everybody with a link to oddfuture.com,” she says. “Then people went to oddfuture.com and was like, ‘Oh, these niggas are wilding.’” Those who followed the link were greeted by the vile, often controversial, wild melodic kid shit that the collective later became well-known for. In the group’s early years, lyrics detailing the urge to sodomize the Virgin Mary or videos showing the crew vomiting after ingesting an unholy mixture drew the curiosity of a growing teenage fan base.
Eventually, most members found managers and publicists who took over Syd’s responsibilities, and by 2011, some in the group were on the verge of superstardom. In February of that year, Frank Ocean and Tyler both popped: the former with the mixtape Nostalgia, Ultra and the latter with his breakthrough single, “Yonkers,” which earned him a performance on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. MellowHype officially released his acclaimed BlackenedWhite project and Earl Sweatshirt, exiled to boarding school in Samoa during much of the crew’s initial rise after his mother caught wind of Odd Future’s music, was back in the studio shortly thereafter. Now, when OF went on tour, kids lined up around the block, sometimes days before a show, to buy merch, kick it, and then rock the night away. Alongside Matt Martians, Syd started a project called the Internet and they dropped their first album, Purple Naked Ladies, in late 2011. The LP garnered praise from outlets like Spin, but achieved marginal commercial success. That reality plus her peers’ superstardom allowed Syd to experience access to fame, like DJing a show at London’s Wembley Stadium, while still owning some anonymity. But when fans would flock to Tyler, Earl, or Frank at the shows, an inner conflict arose. “I think in a lot of ways, I equated the fame to the validation that I wanted,” she says. “So I wanted the fame that they were reaching as a source of validation.” But as she got deeper into the industry, she realized that fame doesn’t necessarily come with respect. “There was probably a long time where I was thirsty for respect,” she says. “Not necessarily fame because I don’t necessarily like all eyes on me, and I knew that, but I also wanted the respect that came along with the fans that I was seeing my peers get. Their fame and their level of respect seemed to run parallel, and then I started to see other scenarios where that didn’t run parallel. Somebody who was getting extra famous, but nobody respected them and I was like, ‘Oh, it can go both ways.’ I can forge my own path. I can blaze my own trail with this shit, so to say, ‘What kind of life do I want? What kind of fame do I want? What kind of validation do I want?”
Little did Syd know, she was quietly becoming a star herself. Three years after Purple Naked Ladies, the Internet was nominated for a Grammy. And in 2017, her debut solo effort, the soothing, ’90s-R&B-inspired Fin, was met with more acclaim. The success also brought a spotlight to the barriers she was breaking. The queer musicians that Syd was aware of when was she younger were often vocal, but vague, and their love songs contained ambiguous lyrics that didn’t reveal the gender of their lover. One evening, Syd was recording with a gay Black woman who was rapping lyrics about having sex with a guy. Confused, she asked the artist why she was singing about guys when she dated women. “She was like, ‘Well, my homegirls are straight. All my best friends are straight, I want to make songs for them,’” Syd says. “I was like, ‘Whoa. OK, so it has nothing to do with shame or nothing?’ She was like, ‘No, I don’t give a fuck. I just want something that my homegirls can turn up to.’”
In an ironic twist, that gave Syd the strength to live her truth on record. “I was like, ‘OK, fuck it.’ I went into writing songs about women with that in mind, thinking ‘Oh, it’s not a big deal. It’s just all about whoever you want to listen, whoever you want to appreciate it,’ and I write songs for myself, I think.”
The decision also came with controversy. In the music video for the Internet’s debut single, “Cocaine,” Syd’s character is on a date with a woman at a carnival, kissing, doing drugs, and teetering the line between fun and self-destruction. The video, she says, got pushback from the LGBTQ community. “I’m with this girl, we’re in a carnival, we do some drugs, we make out, she passes out, she won’t wake up. I’m like, ‘I got to dump this bitch. I can’t be caught out here,’” she says, describing the video’s plot. “At that point, I’d say the lesbian community did not like that. They thought it was very anti-woman. I was like, ‘Well, we can’t have a song called ‘Cocaine’ and a video where we’re doing all these drugs and have it end well.’ That was my logic going into it, but that was my first time ever being confronted by press and being told ‘Yo, watch yourself. Hold up. Watch how you represent yourself,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, shit. Y’all care? Y’all give a fuck?’” Now, openly queer artists consistently top the pop charts, including Lil Nas X, whom she credits for helping queer representation. “Shout-out Lil Nas X,” she says. “I think he is leading a revolution and I’m really glad that it’s a Black boy doing it. I think that’s sick.”
Syd’s latest project is the audio embodiment of her evolution in the past two years. The production—aided by Darkchild, Troy Taylor, and G Koop—provides a suitable ’90s-inspired melodic palette to bring Syd’s real-life pandemic breakup to wax. “I went through a really crazy heartbreak,” she admits. “My first broken heart.” All of which is chronicled on Broken Hearts Club. The 13-track project walks through the evolution of a relationship through its eventual demise. Its first track, “CYBAH”—an acronym for “could you break a heart”—details the trepidation displayed in the early stages of a relationship. “Fast Car,” the album’s third track, chronicles the utter bliss of the honeymoon stage when both parties believe the feeling will last forever. When her heart shattered last year, she says her buds came to the rescue, providing pep talks and solace and inspiring Syd to use her latest project as a pick-me-up for listeners sharing her pain. “They rallied around me, man,” she says. “And I had a newfound respect for them, like, ‘Wow, you made it through this shit? How did you do it?’ They’re like, ‘I know, it’s crazy. It’s going to be all right,’ and I just wanted to share that experience.”
As of this interview, she has a new boo, model Ariana Simone Clay, and a new outlook on life. “I feel triumphant,” she proclaims. “I came out on top. And I feel like one, I’ve joined this club that I’d never wanted to be a part of, but fuck it, we’re here now and we’re good. We’re stronger, we’re better, we’re faster, and two, I feel like it seemed like a rite of passage and I just wanted to share that with folks—a new perspective on a broken heart.”