When the stars and planets align, MTV’s writers and critics assemble to weigh in on new hotness, chart trash, and glimmers of hope in the pop-music landscape. This week’s roundtable includes Doreen St. Félix, Hazel Cills, Tirhakah Love, Charles Aaron, Molly Lambert, Meaghan Garvey, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Eric Torres, and Simon Vozick-Levinson.
Syd, "All About Me"
Vozick-Levinson: I’ll admit I was a teeny bit skeptical when I first read that Syd was making a solo record. Part of what made The Internet’s 2015 album Ego Death so great was its relaxed, collaborative vibe — it was so clearly the product of a band. Now that I’ve heard “All About Me,” though, I can’t wait for Syd’s pop star era. The beat, produced by The Internet’s 18-year-old guitarist, switches out their basement-jam grooves for something sleeker and hungrier, and Syd raps with an unhurried cool that makes it obvious she deserves her own spotlight. The prideful, lonely-at-the-top lyrics are familiar enough — the chorus could have come from any number of sessions deep within the OVO tents — but Syd has the kind of presence you can’t buy. Drake wishes he’d found a single that felt this effortless for Views.
St. Félix: Of course Syd’s solo introduction would be cool and doused in various shades of blue. There’s menace to this song, but just a touch — enough to satisfy the very high stakes of announcing her brand of independence. Clearly this track is a seed, bidding us to brace ourselves for what this album will bring. Both expository and explanatory, this single confirms that Syd will always be a part of The Internet (“So I keep my squad all around me”) but that she will also always pursue her own success (“That’s ’cause it’s all about me”). It’s a really tenuous balance, one collectives don’t always survive (see: The Fugees), but Syd’s investment seems strong.
Cills: Typically when an artist goes solo like this, a song that builds its skeleton around “it’s all about me” would be a little too on the nose. But Syd couldn’t have made this more chill. I don’t know if I hear menace in “All About Me” as much as I hear someone who can so visibly see their art’s potential and how coolly admirable that is — perhaps so much so that it’s intimidating (the slinky, creepy beat certainly grounds it that way). This song sounds less like a coming-out moment and more like a treatise on how to deal with fame but still stay humble in a way that is devoid of any corniness. I love how every big score (“We gettin’ checks in the mail”) comes with a little retort (“I don’t know if you could tell”) that could land cheeky or deeply earnest. Somehow I only hear the latter.
Aaron: I’ve been playing this on a loop because Syd’s flow has such self-possessed ease (which was always her appeal, going back to Odd Future days when she stood at the back of the stage, watching the boyish mayhem, bemused yet wired). “All About Me” fully leaves the Soulquarium — where Ego Death’s band dynamic lived — for a low-key pop-trap slither with minor-key synths and pointillistic hi-hats. It steps lightly, but Syd asserts her commitments. The chorus’s hook, in fact, builds off the line, “Take care of the family that you came with.” And as Hazel says, there’s not a damn thing hackneyed about it. Not gonna be getting tired of this anytime soon.
Love: One thing I’ve come to appreciate about Syd is how her voice fits comfortably within a song’s geometry. I’m sure spending hours in studio sessions with The Internet attuned Syd’s ear to catching precise changes in a song’s composition, affording her the space to tweak her vocals while staying tight in the cut. Her voice assuredly cruises angles in the melody. I knew this song was gonna be a bop the moment her pitch slid upward in the first verse as a heavier bass swooped in: “I pray for all my homies, I’m lying, at least I try / I say that she’s my only but got you on my mind.” The members of Odd Future (R.I.P. 😢) have matured in such gratifying ways, and Syd is no different — homegirl once tried convincing a potential flame to snort whole-grain cocaine and come home with her, but here she’s so casually stuntin’, it’s sensuous without the nihilism. “All About Me” makes the wait for Syd’s solo record a real test of patience.
Lambert: I watched Syd’s “All About Me” video on YouTube, and it segued perfectly via algorithm into Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs afterward — a late-night trip you have to take alone. Syd’s psychedelia definitely skews more acid macabre here than within the collaborative fusion and warmth of The Internet. Her voice on “All About Me” is like a hypnagogic knock.
Sampha, “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano”
Willis-Abdurraqib: I think the title of the song really is a bit more corny than it should be, but it kind of fits its vibe. I’m not saying that the song is corny in a bad way, but more in a delightful and familiar way. Stripped down to its core, it’s a lovely story about a piano arriving in his mother’s home. There’s a warmth to it that I like, both as someone interested in stories and someone interested in mother-son relationships through a lens of music. Also, I feel like I’m one of many folks who found themselves waiting for Sampha to have that really big moment in which he took off on his own, beyond providing excellent seasoning for other excellent artists. I think this song is a good step in that direction.
Aaron: The trite title did lower my expectations a notch, but good lord, this might be Sampha’s most gorgeous composition yet. It’s a spare ballad that stays believable and affecting without overdoing the ache; and ultimately, the fact that he’s singing about the piano in his mother’s house as an emotional talisman over a piano melody this delicate just lays me out.
Vozick-Levinson: Count me as someone else who’s rooting for Sampha. His voice is so distinctly lovely that even when he’s barely there, as with his background vocals on Solange’s “Don’t Touch My Hair,” it feels like an event. He sounds tender and genuine as usual here, which is good, because the song itself is a little underwhelming for me (and I realize I’m in the minority on this). It’s perfectly nice, which might be the problem — I can easily imagine James Blake or Tobias Jesso Jr. singing this quiet, restrained ballad, although neither of them has Sampha’s depth. I hope this song does well, and I also hope there are more exciting, complicated, or even up-tempo moments on his solo debut.
Torres: This song is just stunning to me. Even with the sentimentality at the core of it, nothing about Sampha’s delivery or the composition feels excessively overworked or schmaltzy. This is one of the most personal songs he’s ever released, and that he’s able to get so much across — a history, a life, a relationship — with just that unadorned piano and trembling voice is pretty breathtaking to hear. “In my chest you know me best / And you know I’ll be back home” is also a perfect line to me — it’s simple, straightforward, but still lands with this total gut punch of nostalgia that the song pivots on. This dude is the truth.
St. Félix: Bear with me here, but something about this song sounds Vandrossian to me. Immediately, I thought of the purity of “Dance With My Father,” the last song Vandross left us with. It’s certainly nowhere near being his best, but I’m intrigued and humbled by those moments when an artist trades in worldliness for the the sometimes sappy truths of biography. Sampha’s done this with sophistication. I’m really stuck on how plain Sampha makes his childhood here, how overtly he tells the story of the death of his mother. Ballads about parental love almost always suffer from a failure of language. Sampha came close.
Sam Hunt, “Drinkin’ Too Much”
Willis-Abdurraqib: I don’t know what is going on with that Boyz II Men–esque spoken interlude, but I think it takes a really weird turn when he starts asking to pay off her student loans at the start. Also, the spoken interludes make the song feel uneven and awkward throughout. It’s like I’m getting a maybe too-intimate look at a life I’m only barely interested in, as if I’m sitting behind a stranger in a booth at Buffalo Wild Wings while he is writing a bad love letter to someone and speaking the words to it out loud as he writes. I really liked a lot of songs on Montevallo, Hunt’s debut album, so I really hope he can recover from this bit of acoustic talking.
Cills: I can’t imagine being the kind of man who, apparently, writes a whole album that blows up a person’s life with attention … then half-assed apologizes for it … then continues singing (?) a song in which he does more of that, even when said person has changed their phone number. Unfortunately, a hint of alcoholism doesn’t necessarily make this desperate situation romantic, Monsieur Hunt. Aside from all that, this is boring. If you’re going to add another “I can’t quit this” ballad to the creepy singer-songwriter bro pile, at least give me something to bite into, not this weird, spoken-word track that sounds like it was made on GarageBand.
Garvey: This is what happens when you aim for Big Boi on “SpottieOttieDopaliscious” but end up at Carrie Bradshaw. And you know, I am not really getting the vibe that Sam Hunt is actually that sorry for naming his album after this poor woman’s hometown and blowing up her entire spot — not even on the unplugged “8pm” version available on SoundCloud. This guy is 32 years old, which is definitely old enough to not be sending these kinds of gaslight-y drunk texts at 8 p.m. Get a grip, man.
Aaron: The Drake of the 615 is a talented and safe-sexy songwriter, but here his talk-sing shtick is some witless straight boooooooleshit.
Lambert: Views From the Sticks!!! A few months ago, I started accidentally getting emails about pledging a sorority at a big Southern university. This led me to a fantasy in which I would attempt to go undercover and successfully pledge the sorority. Somebody said “You’ll have to pretend to like Sam Hunt’s rapping,” and I said that I already did, but this song is making me reconsider whether I actually do. It’s also just a terrible choice for a single — a downer without a hook.
The Shins, “Name for You”
Vozick-Levinson: I like James Mercer best when his words are more obscure and surreal than this. I gather it’s a well-intentioned, inevitably clumsy statement song against sexist double standards? But if you close your eyes on the lyric video, this is one of his more pleasant songs in a while. The melody rushes and jumps like my favorite parts of Chutes Too Narrow, and the Beach Boys backing vocals are a nice touch. It’s not 2003 anymore, that’s for sure, but if this is Mercer’s “Do It Again,” I’m cool with that.
Cills: “They’ve got a name for you girls … all the clothes that you wear, and all of your bits and pieces, yeah.” OK …? I agree that this is a pretty fun song. It’s funny that you mention 2003, Simon, because — and maybe this is just my listening habits talking — this has a sort of jangly, glockenspiel-filled ’00s Scandinavian indie-pop touch à la Jens Lekman and Shout Out Louds. Maybe I’m pulling that out of nowhere, I don’t know. Either way: cheery! Albeit lyrically confusing!
Aaron: Like an American version of Squeeze (they’ve covered the Brit-pop maestros’ “Goodbye Girl”), The Shins make songs that feint and jab — the most obvious hook may not be what sticks with you, even a week or so later. The lyric video here actually helped me focus on how Mercer deftly fits his vocal tics to the non-rhyming, non sequitur wordplay. Though the message is admirable, it is kinda too cleverly stated, though that may wear better over time. Overall, the song itself bops along, slight and familiar, like it’s missing a structural twist or an amusing word choice, but Mercer’s falsetto is so fabulously tireless that I’m betting I’ll hear it a year from now and be singing along like a loon.