Syd’s Retro-Futurist Machine Dreams Are The Pop Music We Deserve

The first time I saw Syd Tha Kyd in the flesh, she had to wait patiently to jump into the crowd. It was 2011, the height of Odd Future’s pop culture influence (and infamy) and the kids of Dublin, Ireland had turned up to their show in force to chant “Kill people, burn sh*t, f*ck school” without consequence.

Perched behind the decks in her role as DJ, Syd watched on as members of the Los Angeles collective did about 12 stage dives each — only at the end of the show was she afforded the opportunity to make the awesome leap. Though the only girl in a group of unruly boys, Syd’s tight trim and muscle tops meant she blended into the crew with ease. More importantly, she bent the knee at the same N*E*R*D altar as group archdeacon Tyler The Creator, and her musicality and counsel was crucial to building the rap group into a pop culture phenom — a lot of their early stuff was, in fact, recorded at Syd’s parents’ house.

Yet Odd Future’s success didn’t make her happy. Out on the road, Syd struggled with depression and feelings of disconnect from her family and girlfriend. “I wasn’t in a good place then and so I don’t really reminisce on those moments,” she told NME earlier this year.

A decade later, Syd’s a solo star on a seemingly unbreakable upward flight path. Her most recent album, Broken Hearts Club, is one of the year’s finest and most striking pop records, an electrifying shock of retro-futurist soul and cyber-funk explorations. Nowadays, she doesn’t have to wait for anyone to take her turn.

Sydney Loren Bennett comes from musical stock. Her Jamaica-based uncle Mikey Bennett is one of the songwriters and producers behind Shabba Ranks’ still-great 1991 chart reggae classic “Mr. Loverman.” As a kid, she’d spend family vacations hanging out in the studio and observing her uncle at work. At 16, Syd’s parents let her turn their guesthouse into her own studio. The budding music-maker’s vocation became playing piano and creating beats.

Syd expressed herself by crafting instrumentals for Odd Future, but a more rounded portrayal of her proclivities was coaxed out by her band The Internet. Originally a component piece of Odd Future that Syd later took in her divorce from the group, The Internet flourished from her musical kinship with background OF member Matt Martians. The very Google-incompatible name of the project actually started out as a joke: In 2011, a journalist interviewing Odd Future asked one member, Left Brain, where he was from. “He was like: ‘I hate when people ask me that,’” Syd later remembered. “‘I’m going to start saying I’m from the internet.’”

No joke, The Internet — with Syd on vocals, backed by Martians and Odd Future touring members Patrick Paige, Christopher Smith, and Tay Walker — made serious cosmic funk odysseys and sci-fi soul tunes, with The Neptunes’ influence very palpable: “Dontcha” could be one of Chad and Pharrell’s early Justin Timberlake productions. The band’s first two albums were low-budget efforts laid down in Syd’s home studio, but after a few line-up changes that included the addition of guitarist Steve Lacy, third album Ego Death proved a breakthrough, earning a Grammy nomination and providing a hit in the slinky Kaytranada-produced single “Girl.”

Syd embarked on further explorations on her 2017 solo debut, Fin, crafting a set of foggy, state-of-the-art alt-R&B tunes — The Weeknd and Miguel-type stuff — with flair and focus. She twinned this contemporary sound with confident declarations of her impending supremacy: On the stuttering electro-slap of “Shake Em Off,” Syd accelerates away from “drowning in doubt and frustration” to announce herself a “young star in the making.”

Now, we have Broken Hearts Club, her most pop-minded album yet, the kind of record an artist seeking to reach the highest peaks of musical stardom would make. As with Fin, Syd produces or co-produces a number of tracks, with external beatmakers drafted in too. Besotted with 1980s pomp productions, throwback drum machines and mammoth synth loops complement the catchy choruses. Prince mimicry comes in the form of the obvious “Little Red Corvette” analog “Fast Car,” while “Control” shoots forward a decade to draw strength from Aaliyah’s music with Timbaland, though it is actually produced by none other than Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins. In other words, Broken Hearts Club is the future as envisioned by pop stars of yesteryear; a retro-futuristic art installation that sounds fresh and vital.

Yet it is primarily about the most rudimentary pop subject matter: a breakup. The 13 songs veer from being written before and after the dissolution of a relationship, accidentally scripting the tragedy of lost love. So you get an opener like “CYBAH,” a collaboration with Lucky Daye, the title serving as an acronym for a serious question posed throughout the song: “Could you break a heart?” Syd, no longer a Kyd (she hit the big 3-0 in the middle of the year), quizzes a potential new love interest with the kind of bluntness only possible if you’ve old traumas of the heart to bear.

Syd is no tub-thumping vocalist, instead her cool, broken-hearted voice amalgamates with the icy-heat generated from the funky, futurist machine dreams. But that coo really slithers on turn-the-lights-off slow jams like “No Way.” “Don’t know what you’ll have arranged / We’ll be gone, missing for days,” she sings, evoking the sentiment of loverman Maxwell on his classic “Til the Cops Come Knockin’.” And there’s further retro goodness with the sweetly plucked strings of “Right Track” recalling a strand of ’00s chart R&B — think Kandi Burress’s “Don’t Think I’m Not.”

The album reaches its emotional apex on the home straight. “BMHWDY” (“Break my heart, why don’t ya?”) is a desperate yearning, while the pillow-soft “Goodbye My Love” sounds like acceptance. But if those two songs feel fueled by raw emotion, closer “Missing Out” is the full relationship post-mortem. “As far as I can see, you and me could never be,” sings Syd. “‘Cause we didn’t spend the proper time tryna work it out.” Her final realization on this emotional journey is that it’s her ex-girlfriend who’s lost out in this breakup.

Having bore witness to Syd from her artistic inception, it feels like she is reaching maximum speed in what is bound to be a long race. Take it from Beyoncé, who tapped Syd to produce funky ditty “Plastic Off The Sofa,” the most romantic joint on Bey’s new album Renaissance. When you realize that it’s not a dissimilar song to “Heartfelt Freestyle,” a minor number from Broken Hearts Club, it becomes evident that Beyoncé is just as besotted with Syd’s style as her most dedicated disciples. No wonder nobody can say anything to her anymore. When asked by NME if she still seeks the validation of others, Syd shook off the question. “I don’t think I care anymore,” she said. “I know I’m a genius.”

Broken Hearts Club is now via Syd Solo/Columbia. Get it here.