Syd didn’t always have her own voice. As the touring DJ of Los Angeles–based rap collective Odd Future, she played the background to group front men Earl Sweatshirt, Frank Ocean, and Tyler, the Creator. Pull up one of their live performances from 2011 or 2012, and you’ll likely see Syd in the background, hunched over a laptop. To observers, she seemed happy with her career’s direction: Syd—then known as Syd tha Kyd—was an essential member of the crew and produced some of its early tracks in her home studio. Yet, according to a 2016 New York Times Magazine profile, Syd struggled with depression during her time with Odd Future. As the group became more popular, and Tyler’s occasionally homophobic lyrics became the center of public controversy, Syd came to feel isolated from the crew’s other members. She missed her family and then-girlfriend, but she “couldn’t talk to any of them about it,” Syd told the Times Magazine. “We weren’t all that close, and they never seemed to want to hear it.”
So she started training her younger brother, Taco, to take her place as Odd Future’s touring DJ. From there, Syd and her longtime friend Matt Martin—known creatively as Matt Martians—started working on their own music, a hazy blend of rap and R&B far removed from Odd Future’s bawdy hip-hop. Released under the group name The Internet, Syd and Martians’ 2011 debut album—Purple Naked Ladies—showcased Syd’s soft vocal inflections and creative range as a producer. The Internet evokes 1990s neo-soul, and Syd calls Erykah Badu her biggest influence. On their second and third albums Feel Good (2013) and Ego Death (2015), you can trace Syd’s growth as a singer. She won’t wow you with a powerful ballad like Adele or Beyoncé, but she has an almost indescribable charisma. Much like the ’90s R&B star Aaliyah, Syd exudes a quiet grace that gives her music a dark, sultry feel. And yet, despite her development on those albums, Syd the singer still wasn’t as imperative as Syd the producer.
On her solo debut album, Fin, released this February, Syd details the ups and downs of romantic relationships, outlining the passion and frustrations that occur. In that sense, Fin plays like a concept album on which the vocalist remembers a particular fling, walking us through every stage—from the initial courtship to its sad conclusion. Along the way, Syd wonders what the union will become, pondering its nuances at every turn. Fin depicts the sweet and sexy elements of love; it’s equal parts lust and bluster. She portrays herself as the confident beau with understated swagger. “I’m the one your girl been postin’ tweets ’bout,” Syd sings on “No Complaints.” Conversely, on “Over” and “Insecurities,” Syd’s tone becomes melancholic. She sings of her fading love affair, and the music around her—a mix of booming drums, faint chimes, and floating keys—carries an equally somber feel and helps emphasize the heartbreak she emotes.
Thankfully, Fin is defiant much like Frank Ocean’s debut channel ORANGE (2012). It’s an honest statement of love and companionship, told by a somewhat reluctant public figure. And at certain moments on Fin, Syd brags about her lifestyle, almost as a way to applaud the work she’s put in to get where she is. Sure, it contains the usual tropes of hip-hop—spending cash, stunting on haters—but only with an uncomfortable, nearly mocking tone, which might be her slyest show of force on the album. Despite Fin’s warm texture—the sort of sound to which lesser songwriters like Bryson Tiller add no complexity—many of Syd’s lyrics on the album address the anxieties of new fame. On “Shake ’Em Off,” she sings, “I’m drowning in doubt and frustration / Can’t sleep ’cause I’m anxious / Counting sheep and all.” On “All About Me,” the album’s first single, Syd lets us in on how she keeps it together: “Take care of the family that you came with / We made it this far and it’s amazing.”