During the early stages of Odd Future's meteoric rise, Sydney Bennett was the L.A. crew's in-house audio engineer and undercover fixer — a stoned-out cross between Sylvia Robinson and Olivia Pope, who could build a home studio dojo for her friends one day and create a stock PR firm website to fool media outlets into covering their music the next. By the time Odd Future became nationally known in 2010, Syd's status as the group's only woman and only out gay member sometimes overshadowed her production and songwriting contributions, submerging her talent beneath vacuous stereotypes about gender and sexuality.
You can hear some of that tension on the first two albums Syd made with her Odd Future spin-off group, The Internet. The soulful incantations on 2011's Purple Naked Ladies and 2013's Feel Good show the band working to differentiate itself from Odd Future's teenage hedonism — they were promising early efforts from a group still working on carving out its own lane. It wasn't until The Internet's 2015 release, the Grammy-nominated Ego Death, that Syd and her bandmates sounded as unencumbered as they claimed to be, buoying their jazz, funk, and rock arrangements with decisive R&B flourishes. Syd's shimmery falsetto took the band to newfound regions of melody, and her much-improved pen game sparkled. That kind of progressive tinkering often pays dividends when an artist chooses to dive deeper into soul music, and Ego Death signaled Syd's increased comfort with her own gifts.
Her new solo debut, Fin, uses the glitz and gall Syd developed over the last two years to explore new, underused moods. Unlike Ego Death, which dedicated itself to pristine, crisp musicality, Fin is equal parts industrial and cosmic. The album's opener, “Shake Em Off,” is a transmission from the same garage where NASA parks its Mars rovers. Syd sounds almost weary from her trip past the stratosphere: “Back and forth now, I'm pacing / Young star in the making / Swear they sleepin' on me.” Her inflection is as silky and sly as ever, twirling along the clattering, plodding trap beat. Syd's feel for subtle cues in a song's structure — developed over years of producing for Odd Future and her own studio sessions with The Internet — makes for some of the most excellently synchronized rap melodies this side of the OVO owl. Two tracks later, she lets the ominous kick drum of “No Complaints” lead the way, stretching and cleaving slant rhymes into couplets as the rhythm dictates, all while maintaining a light register that Aubrey and his disciples can only dream of. She might have 'em on the slick-talk, too.
In other ways, Fin can claim niece-hood to a sound 15 years its elder. The frenetic break beats and synth-infused strings of “Know” tip their hat to Timbaland's groundbreaking dance/R&B productions in the late ’90s and early 2000s, as do Syd's hazy, whispery vocals and flirty tone — clear salutes to Aaliyah. She shares the late singer's ability to be seductive without being overly graphic: “You can stay till the morning / When we wake up, jump on it,” she suggests, establishing a line between the erotic and the pornographic that many male R&B singers should take note of. This distinction is encapsulated perfectly on the sultry, hip-rolling interlude “Drown in It,” when Syd asks, “Are you ready, baby?” before letting her partner in on all the diving, swimming, and drowning she's preparing to get into with her. This sweaty declaration of intent dovetails into the single “Body,” on which Syd praises her partner's flesh as she too is observed, studied, and lusted after. Though the bridge dips toward cliché — “Baby, we can take it slow / Say my name / Don't let go” — the spaced-out slow jam stays unique enough to keep the listener's attention.
Like Ego Death before it, Fin often sounds like it could be coming from the middle of a smoke lounge in some unnamed city's red-light district. Some of its producers are new to Syd's musical cosmos: MeLo-X, who co-wrote two songs on Lemonade, produced “Body”; Hit-Boy and Rahki also make appearances. Others, like The Internet guitarist Steve Lacy, have worked with the singer for years. All these collaborations align with Syd's distinct musical blueprint: a subtle, cloudy sound with drum 'n' bass somewhere in its lineage, sensuality thumping in the dark center, and Syd's own controlled confidence filling out the empty space. The Lacy-assisted single “All About Me” reflects on the collective journey it took to establish that solo vibe. When Syd nonchalantly sings, “Take care of the family that you came with,” we can look beyond her smooth delivery and appreciate that the resolve she sings with now is hard-earned.
It's easy to understand why Syd might have wanted to leave behind the comfortable collective that nurtured her, even if it's only for a while, and lay claim to her destiny — especially now, as we all reorient ourselves after a social and political eclipse. The last two weeks have been shrouded in a cynical thickness that often feels too big to wade out of. Even after years of heightened political action and awareness, many have wondered if they're truly prepared to meet these new challenges. It made me think of an interview with Syd from last October, in which she spoke about the difficulties of learning how to perform live on the fly. “I used to get the most anxiety before shows because I really was never prepared,” she told The Fader, reminiscing on how touring with The Internet helped ease that stress. Fin, through its arc of erotic love and sympathetic friendship, answers the question of how to half-step out even further and brush the dark off your shoulders.