Both Sydney Bennett and Sampha Sisay have spent the last few years in a similar place. They’ve been a near-constant presence, whether through features, EPs, or group efforts, always sticking around. Bennett, who goes by Syd, spent years as a bench player for various Odd Future projects before stepping up as the frontwoman for neo-soul group The Internet. Sampha, as Sisay goes by, was most commonly recognized from his hook on Drake’s “Too Much,” before showing up on various other tracks through the years. Both singers released their debut albums on February 3rd, taking their own paths from the sidelines to the spotlight.
For Syd, it’s been a slow burn, beginning her career as an engineer and DJ with Odd Future (her brother is known as ‘Taco’) before becoming the singer in the original iteration of The Internet back in 2011. Three years and three albums later, The Internet has become a full scale, neo-jazz/soul group, based around Syd’s voice and co-founder Matt Martians’s beats. “Girl,” off of the band’s latest album Ego Death, is a song in a class of its own—with production from Kaytranada and the right media exposure (it was played recently in an episode of HBO’s Insecure), the song is a modern blueprint for a unique-yet-infectious funk/R&B hybrid.
As detailed in last fall’s FADER cover story, almost every member of The Internet has plans for individual projects before the group’s next tentpole album, giving each of them an opportunity to individually pursue the depths of their creative hopes, with space to come together and—ideally—make their next album bigger than the sum of its parts.
Enter Fin, Syd’s 12-song solo project. It’s entirely different than anything the 24-year-old crooner has done before, partly because she spends the duration of the album doing just that—crooning. Fin finds Syd trading in a lot of the funk and jazz points that a typical Internet album has, instead opting for 37 minutes of a sultry, pure R&B vibe. It’s not dissimilar from the type of record that could have been found around 20 years ago from the likes of Aaliyah—or, perhaps, last year, in Solange’s A Seat At The Table. She most certainly sold herself short in the FADER piece: “This album is not that deep, but I feel like this is my descent into the depth I want the band to get to,” she said. “For me, this is like an in-between thing—maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.”
On songs like “Know” and single “Body,” there’s an effortlessness to Syd’s voice that is impossible to ignore—you’d never take her for the introvert who used to blend in the backgrounds in Odd Future’s early days. She exerts her rich, velvety voice with such confidence, sharing lyrics about relationships and love that blend perfectly in with her life, and the things that matter to her as a 24-year-old. “Is it safe to say it’s over?” she asks on “Over,” going back and forth with 6LACK. “I’m moving on, you’re moving on, it won’t be long,” she croons, “..until you come to the conclusion, that we can’t be exclusive.” No topic is too personal, and no topic is too broad.
While Syd’s record is zeroing in on that very specific voice, sound, and style, Sampha’s debut album, Process, is almost an exact foil to it. Sampha samples his entire palette on the album, bringing a little bit of this and a little bit of that to the table, transitioning seamlessly through paces, styles, and approaches among the album’s ten songs. There are ballad-y songs, there are fast-paced songs, and there are all kinds of things in between. Sampha’s recorded a hit with Solange, but his style on “Process,” and willingness to move from style to style on a song-by-song basis might have more of a similarity to Solange’s sister. Recall how Lemonade features “Daddy Lessons,” as Beyoncé took a hard left turn into country music territory? Sampha obviously doesn’t have the track record that pop’s reigning queen did, so his jumps aren’t as pronounced, but the versatility remains, unflinching.
After appearing on the aforementioned “Don’t Touch My Hair” with Solange on A Seat At The Table last year as well as “Saint Pablo” with Kanye West, there was a lot of momentum on Sampha’s side during the lead-up to his debut solo record, Process, which also dropped last week. The album is a roller coaster the whole way, but not the kind of roller coaster you’re terrified to go on, and on which you can’t bear to feel your stomach drop before the first big lunge. It’s the kind of coaster that simply turns this way or that, but it’s smooth and subtle; never unexpected, and never unwanted.
Two of the album’s singles, “Blood on Me” and “(No One Knows Me) Like the Piano” are so starkly different, so entirely cut from different cloth, that it could seem like the two belong on different records. But there’s something to the English singer’s voice that makes it work, and makes them cohesive. It’s the same quality that boosted the back end of the Solange song, and the same thing that Kanye sought out for “Saint Pablo,” added retroactively as The Life Of Pablo’s closing track.
As he swings from one song to the next, subtly trading one style for the next, Sampha gains a comfortability with his voice. This is a debut album that doesn’t ever sound like it. He’s not trying to find himself in these songs—he knows who he is, and he knows what his voice is capable of.
We’re only a month and change into 2017, and there have already been a handful of albums that have made cultural waves. And the undeniable fact is that two formerly-supporting players have successfully leapt into leading roles, and their finished products prove they belong there. Do they want to hold onto that spotlight, or will this simply be a fleeting moment? Only time will tell.