Wednesday, November 5, 2014

album review: 'vii' by teyana taylor

It's always interesting as a critic that covers pop music to take note of major trends, and the easiest way to do so is to take notes of the acts that seemingly debut from out of nowhere, with unexpected waves of buzz or just the right amount of propulsion to launch into the mainstream.

And where new bro-country releases dominated 2013, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year where R&B and soul returned en masse with a slew of debut artists from both the mainstream and independent spheres. And in a nice change of pace from the male-dominated wave of country, most of the debuting R&B acts are women, with SZA, FKA Twigs, Banks, Jhene Aiko, and Tinashe all bringing distinctly different sounds and levels of quality to the table. But what's notable is to look behind the scenes and see where these acts are coming from, as it seems like most major labels are fighting to get their R&B starlet in the spotlight to mixed degrees of success.

But the label that appears to be throwing the majority of their money into the R&B game is Def Jam - they already launched Jhene Aiko and are already looking to add to the scene with Teyana Taylor, a New York R&B singer who is most notable outside the music scene for featuring on the soul-crushing show MTV's My Super Sweet 16, a show where spoiled rich teenagers have ludicrously expensive sixteenth birthday parties and act like terrible people.

So okay, not a good sign, but to be fair to her, that was seven years ago - most people are terrible when they're teenagers, you grow out of it - and she's been around the music scene long enough since then to probably have developed some sense - or at least some great connections. Originally signed to Pharrell's personal label, she later connected with Kanye West and apparently hit it off so well she landed vocal pieces on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and eventually was signed to Kanye's G.O.O.D. Music, where she appeared on the compilation album Cruel Summer and now has finally dropped her debut album VII, apparently heavily inspired by 90s R&B like Janet Jackson, Lauryn Hill, and Mary J. Blige. And coupled with Kanye West's executive producer credit on this debut, it was enough to get me curious enough to check it out - how is it?

Well, remember how I said that Teyana Taylor was heavily inspired by 90s R&B? Well you can tell, because this is a record that's firmly wedged in two worlds: the slick, classier brand of R&B you found fifteen or so years ago; and the dirtier, grimier R&B you get now. And this leads to a record that's arguably better when rehashing the past than when it is when discussing the present - and yet I'd make the argument it's still pretty damn good regardless. Not the best R&B record I've heard this year - Jhene Aiko still pretty firmly has that title - but far from the worst.

So let's start with Teyana herself - and while I won't say I'm blown away by her voice, there's a fair amount more gravitas and poise here than I'd normally expect. She doesn't show off a sweeping range, but she's definitely capable of showing off a ton of raw emotion that comes across as genuine, which I'd argue is a lot more important. What's even better is that she's mastered the ability of making songs sound very sexual without needing to resort to explicit language - everything is implied on this record, which I'd argue is a hell of a lot more attractive. And yet there's maturity here as well - not only does she know what she wants, she refuses to play the weak-willed figure who is easily swayed by bad boys - and considering you have Chris Brown, Pusha T, Yo Gotti, and Fabolous on this record, that's saying something.

And speaking of our guest stars... well, it's a bit of a mixed bag. The best verse comes courtesy of Pusha T, who despite sounding as sleazy as always does show how he'll back Teyana up in a wingman sort of role, but Yo Gotti doesn't quite do as well, mostly because his rougher street rapper voice isn't as great of a fit over this smoother trap-inspired production. And Fabolous's verse on 'Broken Hearted Girl' takes the lecherous side of the hookup track and shows some truly embarrassing wordplay on a technical level - plus, no self-respecting person should ever use hashtags in conversation, it's just sad. The surprise for me was courtesy of Chris Brown on 'Do Not Disturb', where they have some pretty solid musical chemistry and he mostly sticks to his more expressive upper range. I still don't like it whenever there's rough sex mentioned in a song with Chris Brown, but at least the lines are courtesy of Teyana being in control, which is a welcome change.

This takes us to production and instrumentation - and as I mentioned earlier, this album is effectively split right down the middle between songs that wouldn't sound of out of place in the mid-to-late 90s and songs that'd work on mainstream R&B radio right now - and look, I'd be lying if I said I didn't prefer more of the former. If anything, the contrast only highlights why: songs like 'Request' with the delicate flutter of the harps or the piano ballad 'Sorry' that could have been lifted directly from Mariah's late-90s work are a lot more melodic and sensual than most of the harsher-sounding R&B of today, and I'd take them over the reversed synth leads on 'Just Different', the effects at the back of 'Broken Hearted Girl' that sound like they're constantly dying, or the eerie-sounding trap hi-hats and thick bass that punctuates most of the rest of this album. Hell, both of the interludes should have been stretched into full songs, the former with its guitar-and-bass balances great against the rattling percussion, the second with the dramatic strings and guitar stings with the subtle male chorus - both were pretty awesome. Now that's not saying there aren't some more modern tracks that aren't good: I dug the bass-heavy reggae vibe with the steel drums of 'Put Your Love On' that was unlike anything else on this album and was an easy highlight, the piano and guitar interplay on 'Business' against the snare-drum beat was pretty solid, and hell, the dark trap vibe of 'In The Air' was appropriate for the angry tone of the song, and the backing vocals were definitely welcome. That said, if we are looking for production issues, they mostly fell on the more 'modern-sounding' songs, courtesy of too much pitch correction on tracks like 'Just Different' or the interjection of gang vocals that just aren't needed at all.

But at this point we need to talk songwriting... and look, I'd be lying if I said that this record's songwriting topics strayed far from typical R&B. We get songs about complicated and failing relationships and a fair number of songs about sex and hookups, it's not exactly new and I wouldn't say the poetry is stellar or all that descriptive either. But that being said, there are some highlights I did appreciate and did knock this album up a few notches. For one, despite showing real vulnerability, I liked how there was an assertiveness to Teyana Taylor's writing that did reflect a certain amount of poise and self-control. Her prodding to get her partner to open up about his fantasies on 'Request', her weary acknowledgements on 'Broken Hearted Girl' that it really was just going to be a one-night stand and she's okay with that, or the assertions to her partner that they don't need to divulge details about their sex lives or relationship on 'Business', definitely a sentiment I can get behind. But for me the two lyrical highlights are right next to each other, the first being 'Dreams', where she calls out another R&B artist Tory Lanez who made a song that was decidedly creepy where he said he was dreaming about screwing her. The great thing is how Teyana responded to it - not with anger, but with pure disdain that he didn't come correct, which is helped by the fact that I'm fairly certain her voice is deeper - and better - than his. And then that song is followed by 'Sorry', easily my favourite track on this album directed an ex where she shows remorse she couldn't reciprocate the feelings and had to break his heart. It's a mature break-up song that acknowledges what didn't work and doesn't hold any ill feelings towards him other than empathy. And in a world where so many artists opt for bitterness or resentment or stupid games in similar scenarios, Teyana takes the high road and that does show a lot. 

So at the end of the day... you know, I really quite liked this. I won't say it's doing anything new in terms of content or delivery or instrumentation, which does hold it back from me really loving it, but in terms of an R&B debut, it shows a level of maturity, poise, and intellect I definitely appreciated. For me, it's a light 7/10 - a pretty good album that if you're looking for another fix of consistent R&B that calls back to the past and present, VII by Teyana Taylor will definitely deliver.

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