Syd is our pandemic troubadour
"I finally feel confident that I can blaze my own trail and pave my own lane,” Syd says after the release of her new album, Broken Hearts Club.
Ever since Syd arrived on the Southern California scene with the avant-garde “Flashlight” at just 16 years old, it’s been clear that the multi-hyphenate artist has a unique capability to sink her teeth into the tender flesh of intimacy and capture lightning-in-a-bottle moments through her music. Her lyricism is both erotic and emotional, a sublime counterpunch to the understated, sapphic sensuality of her production — the combination has shaped a contemporary remix of the Quiet Storm era of R&B. With the 29-year-old artist’s latest album, however, she planned to introduce the world to something new, something deeper: a journey of her love in song.
The now-ironically titled Broken Hearts Club charts out the dizzyingly euphoric highs and nadirs of an ill-fated relationship, inspired by the disintegration of Syd’s own relationship at the beginning of the pandemic. “I started this album when I was in the relationship,” the Odd Future alum and The Internet frontwoman tells Mic. “I remember watching it happen [for others] and be like, damn, sucks for y'all. And then it happened to me.” It’s an experience she can now appreciate for the layers of extenuating circumstances that were at play, but she was only halfway done with the project at the time and had to shelve it to tend to her emotional needs. “I’m actually not a writer who writes when I’m sad,” she says, explaining her struggles with depression. “I didn’t want to write all these love songs about this girl who just dumped me.”
Listening to the songs, it’s understandable why Syd initially sought some distance. Tracks like the heady “Fast Car” and sentimental “Sweet” transport you through a rapturous journey of a relationship’s honeymoon phase, with melodies coated in the kind of optimism derived from those all-consuming, early stages of love. Instead of allowing the passion that electrified her romance to swallow her whole in her newfound heartache, she took a break from her work, saw a psychiatrist, and found new ways to heal. “It was a process of re-learning myself and getting comfortable with who I always knew I was but always questioned,” Syd says, noting that the process included everything from reading books by her favorite authors to getting into fitness and weights. “I had never done a pull-up before. I was doing 15 pull-ups [at a time] by the end of this thing.”
Determined not to let heartbreak rob her of her art, Syd eventually returned to the studio after gaining some clarity and a slightly adjusted story. The sharp pivot in the album is evident in “Out Loud,” an earnest and anguished duet with fellow R&B singer/songwriter Kehlani that’s replete with tastefully referenced ‘90s-era R&B guitar chords. It also happens to be a track sung by two popular lesbian artists, a rarity for the genre. “Some of the folks definitely wanted to push that song as a huge statement before the album dropped, and I was like, ‘For who?’ You know, this is normal,” she says, when explaining her early resistance to promoting the song. Now, she’s all-in. She and Kehlani are directing the music video, and Kehlani’s company is producing it. “ … We’re really going to have control over the image and the portrayal and the representation; that’s all I wanted,” she says.
Some of the album’s other collaborations are the culmination of lifelong dreams that she had previously been too hesitant to pursue. “Control,” a track that has Syd crooning supplications to her partner, is produced by the legendary Darkchild, and masterfully accentuates contemporary R&B melody trends with a restrained application of his signature jerky drum loops. “He made it right in front of me and it was very surreal,” she says. “I’ve always been afraid to work with my idols. This is one of the first idols I’ve worked with — the first was Chad Hugo [half of the production duo The Neptunes] — but when it goes that well, it kind of makes you question your fear.” Her other idols are a who’s who of match-ups, that give sharp insight as to her own influences – Pharrell, Jill Scott, Timbaland, Missy Elliot – and offer a bit of insight into where her sonic direction could potentially evolve in the years to come, should the opportunity arise for what she once believed were impossible collaborations.
While the listening journey of the album is fairly linear, the creative journey had to evolve and unfold organically. It’s familiar territory for Syd, who isn’t afraid to embrace ambiguity and see where it takes her, either in life or in music. In fact, her album intentionally starts with a question: “Could you break a heart?” It’s a quasi-eroticized version of Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” reminding listeners that the risk and ultimate reward in love come with a leap of faith. “I wrote that after the fact, like in a whole new relationship,” she says, referring to her current partner. “I like to start things with a question. My favorite books usually start with a question or something open-ended.” When she wrote the question’s heartbreaking answer with “BMHWDY” – break my heart why don’t ya – she had a smile on her face, having released all of the anger that had ensnared her in the period after the breakup.
In many ways, Broken Hearts Club freed Syd from not just her emotional wounds, but also many of the complexes that she felt plagued her artistically. “Up until last year, I always compared my timeline to someone else's, whether it was one person or, like, three people combined,” she laughs. “I didn't feel this way until recently, but I finally feel confident in the fact that I can blaze my own trail … and pave my own lane.” It’s almost astonishing to hear that Syd doesn’t believe herself to be a trailblazer already; her lithe and confessional approach to R&B has had a direct influence in shaping the genre over the last decade, as can be seen in the rise of artists such as Summer Walker, H.E.R., and Mariah the Scientist.
What gives Syd’s music the most cohesion is her accountability to herself and her artistic voice. “I’m not good at forcing songs,” she admits. “If I don’t have anything to write about, it’s tough.” It’s for that reason that there’s no cocksure salaciousness akin to The Internet’s “Special Affair” on this album, despite the fact that Syd’s signature braggadocio style is a crowd-pleaser among her fans. “There was some people on my team who were like, ‘I mean, are you gonna talk your shit, though?’” she says, chuckling. “And I was just like, ‘Uhh, I'm not there right now.’”
The conclusion of her efforts is a perfectly sequenced album that encapsulates the full swath of feelings that many millennials in relationships experienced in early 2020. Only a uniquely skilled artist can take a personalized experience and make it feel both universally revelatory and sonically innovative. Syd is such an artist, consistently serving as the troubadour of women’s emotions, while challenging herself to grow as an artist and partner — and it reflects in her output. As long as she persists in the deeply rewarding labor of exploring the intricacies of romance and affection, she’ll be a trendsetter for years to come. “Dude, I feel confident that any of us could just blaze a new trail,”” she says, referring to not just her prescient vision, but the foresight of her longtime collaborators within The Internet. “it doesn't matter if it's been done before.”