Hip-Hop has destroyed one-dimensional perceptions of its genre that intended to keep it marginalized. Today, the culture is ubiquitous – from rock to gospel, it dominates popular music.
It has evolved to include subgenres, blending the traditional with the experimental. The Kennedy Center now has a Hip-Hop Culture Council, and Drexel, Rice, and Stanford Universities offer courses in the culture. Early critics of Hip-Hop said it wouldn’t last, but they were big wrong. Today, Hip-Hop culture dominates popular culture, too.
With the maturation of Hip-Hop, we’re finally having conversations about the queer people in it. In honor of this last week of Black Music and Pride month, I thought I’d spotlight such an artist: Syd.
She was born Sydney Loren Bennett in Los Angeles, California. At 14, she built a makeshift studio in her bedroom where she mixed vocals, instruments, and other musical elements into new songs. Her career launched when she joined younger brother, Taco, in Odd Future – the Hip-Hop collective that gave us Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, and Tyler the Creator. She was known as Syd tha Kid then.
In 2011, Syd joined fellow Odd Future member, Matt Martians, to found a new band – the Internet – as a “side project.” Syd was the mixing and recording engineer for the new project, and she would step from behind the boards to perform lead vocals. The Internet’s first album, Purple Naked Ladies, sounds like a soulful yet psychedelic version of R&B. The video for one of its lead singles, “Cocaine” is endearing, trippy as fuck, and gross – in that order.
It’s also Syd’s formal coming out moment. She plays the lead in this classic story: girl meets girl at the County Fair and does coke and pills behind one of the rides. The love interest doesn’t handle her drug trip well. She passes out. Syd dumps her on the side of the road and dips.
Sonically, Odd Future albums and the Internet’s first album were worlds apart. Odd Future threw around terms associated with homophobia like it was nothing. And, as content goes, they both trafficked in misogyny. Syd took a lot of heat for her work with Odd Future and for that video, in particular. How could she be a woman and treat another woman like shit? How could she be queer and sanction homophobic language in her presence? Odd Future’s artistic direction has always steered toward the provocative for better or worse. In the Odd Future crew, “faggot” wasn’t a pejorative for gay, it was an adjective for something lame or stupid instead. This distinction offers no absolution, but it does give us a glimpse into the way the singer thinks. Syd was just irreverent like that, at that time.
Sometimes, age changes things.
Later Internet albums, and Syd’s debut solo album, Fin, have been far less controversial, allowing her talents to shine without unnecessary (and self-inflicted) drama. I’m grateful because that voice is a whole mood. Songs like “You Don’t Even Know,” and “Girl” feel like kicking back at a dope spot with a beautiful woman massaging your scalp in her lap. “Special Affair” feels like catching eyes from across the room with that same woman when you’ve had a few shots, and a few pulls of Cali’s most excellent trees. Confidence on a thousand, you hit her with,
… it’s so rare that I’m here, don’t plan on staying too long / So you should come here, sit your ass on this throne / This a special affair, better act like you know who I am, who I am…
In a 2015 interview for Fader, Syd said she felt conscious about making a song like “Special Affair.” The honesty she got to display in the song about how much she loved women was a boost to Syd’s confidence. “…it might just open some more doors for me….you don’t have to be good looking or buff or any of that to be a sex symbol. It’s about your confidence, and how you present yourself.”
On Fin, Syd’s confidence feels more realized. “All About Me” weaponizes that seductive voice to talk big shit about her success and the necessity of her squad. She jabs at haters,
I see you mad at yourself, I see them mad at themselves /I hear ‘em crying for help, I hear ‘em crying for help / Don’t be mad if I switch up, my good taste got me this much / Too sweet for your taste buds, I seen you sleepin’ hoe, wake up…
“Body,” “Drown in It,” and “Dollar Bills” feel like the progeny of “Special Affair” – none of which are better, in my view. But without the latter, I’m not sure the others ever get made. For almost a decade, Syd has been building on her talents and growing as an artist. As a singer, songwriter, and music engineer, she’s a student of the craft. Her voice stands out in today’s climate, and she makes infinitely vibeable tunes. Add some [more] Syd to your next kickback playlist.
Thank me later.
Cover photo The Independent