How does one follow up the perfect summer-time album, especially with another summer release? This was the problem that faced Odd Future collective The Internet with the release of their third studio album, Ego Death. While not technically hip-hop, the efforts of artists such as Flying Lotus and Kendrick Lamar have led many, myself included, to conflate neo-soul, funk, hip-hop and rap under the same umbrella. Features from Vic Mensa, KAYTRANADA and Tyler, The Creator on Ego Death and artists such as Mac Miller on their previous album Feel Good only add to this argument.
Back in early June, Special Affair was released, the lascivious first single from this new project. A distinct departure from Syd the Kyd’s characteristically diaphanous sentiments, Special Affair had a much more sultry vibe, more along the lines of Shadow Dance than Sunset, for fans of their previous album. Assisted by some darker production from Matt Martian, I was expecting something a little different from Feel good, and I was right.
Ego Death is a concupiscent, almost-erotic collection of songs, written from a woman, the ever-androgynous Syd to another woman. She oozes through this album as the most confident, swaggery woman possible, her vocals akin to whispers in the ear or warm breath on a cold neck, in stark contrast to that other Odd Future prodigy, Earl Sweatshirt. The majority of this album is soul, soul reminiscent of the mid-1990s and the advent of neo-soul. The instrumentation delivers its fair share of boom-bap, but not so much as to umbriferously obscure the chilled synths, keyboards, and bass. That’s not to say that this album isn’t conducive to the odd rap verse; Vic Mensa comes through with a rip-roaring verse on Go With It, riding the beat with a studied nonchalance and a fantastic rhyme structure. Tyler, The Creator’s verse seems more divisive though. His incredibly low-pitched singing jarred on such smooth instrumentation and his feature was too short to redeem itself. KAYTRANADA, Janelle Monáe and James Fauntleroy all delivered solid contributions.
Syd, however, is the star of the show. Whereas Feel Good had a song for everything, almost every song on Ego Death inspires confidence, from the profligate yet humble lyrics and bombastic production on the opening track Get Away, to the unorthodox break-up lyricism on Just Sayin/I Tried, to the fanciful political commentary on Penthouse Cloud. Indeed, the closing line to the first hook on Under Control is emblematic of this infectious conviction. In addition, the fact that she is singing these songs about another woman is a revelation, though not because of America’s recent legalisation of gay marriage, and certainly not because it’s particularly meaningful. Syd helps add a new dimension to this subject matter by drawing a line between Mary Lambert’s belting approach and the banal, stereotypical musings of Katy Perry et al with a matter-of-factness and indifference to the perceived abnormality of homosexual love that I hope it becomes the new norm.
I like this album a great deal, but I have only one issue. The thing that made Feel Good such a wonderful album to me was its variety in subject matter and production. I could feel that drug-induced, laid-back mood on Wanders Of The Mind, but I could also connect with the emotional pain in Red Balloon. This album lacks in that department, often to the detriment of the project as a whole. The sexiness and confidence that pervades Ego Death is absolutely enjoyable, and it is perfect for summer, but it’s not as personal an album as Feel Good, and while for some that may well be a good direction to take, but I can’t help but feel it’s a step down. It is indubitable that Syd has improved vocally, and The Internet’s production is as brilliant as ever, but I find it difficult to get around the repetitive subject matter. Nonetheless, it will be on repeat for quite some time, and I’m begging to experience it performed in person, à la Live From Space. One can hope.