Teyana Taylor Makes a Definitive Conceptual Statement With ‘The Album’
We last heard from Teyana Taylor on 2018’s “K.T.S.E,” one of the 7-song albums in Kanye West’s five-in-a-row release frenzy. The acronym stood for “Keep that same energy,” and the album delivered on its promise, with Taylor packing plenty of personality into the record’s 22 minutes. Now, Taylor returns on Juneteenth with an ambitious record of far greater scale, deceptively titled “The Album” — but this too is an acronym of sorts. Taylor has divided the release into five sections, or “studios” as she calls them, each corresponding to one of the five letters in the word album. Studio A contains love songs, while Studio L is about sexual energy. B, U, and M tackle self-worth, vulnerability, and triumph respectively. While the album can come across as a bit overblown, it accomplishes everything Taylor sets out to do, and shows her carving out a sound of her own.
Countless artists claim to bare everything in their work, but few mean business the way Tayana Taylor does. She begins the album with a recording of the 911 call made during her daughter Junie’s home birth. The first song, “Come Back to Me,” features Junie’s baby voice singing the hook before Rick Ross drops a short verse, and Taylor finally gets started. The first stretch of songs is light and languid, with Taylor singing over sparse, jazzy backdrops. “Come Back to Me,” “Wake Up Now,” and “Lowkey” are all cool and crisp, mellow R&B numbers. The latter takes inspiration from Erykah Badu’s 1997 song “Next Lifetime,” with Taylor riffing off Badu’s original vocal melody, and spinning it into something of her own. Badu shows up herself, and her singular voice in hi def production, over two decades after the original, sounds like a time warp in which an elder R&B great passes the baton to one of a newer generation. Quavo joins Taylor, adding lazy Audio-tune accompaniment to her untreated melisma on “Let’s Build,” rounding off a block of love songs.
Next comes the section focused on sexuality, beginning with “1800 One-Night,” an almost vaporwave-ey interlude of moaning, set to a jingle for the titular service. Taylor gets more camp yet on “Morning,” a spacious soundscape of snaps and swirls that takes some cartoonish turns before settling into a groove, and features Kehlani dropping a half-rapped, half-sung verse. By the point “Boomin’” comes, Taylor is claiming an aesthetic all of her own, consistent with the album’s unique cover art — warped, sleek, sexy, angular, and Afro-futuristic. This spacious, crackling track features the colorful entourage of Missy Elliot and Future, both of whom contribute volumes through the smallest gestures. Elliot is right in place, as the sound Taylor toys with here is essentially a contemporary spin on that which Elliot pioneered in hits like “Supa Dupa Fly,” another 1997 track. Although not listed as a feature, Timbaland also works his magic. On his end, Future actually sounds futuristic, a bit like on his debut album, when his moniker vaguely made sense. “69” extends the thought, with Taylor’s voice pitch shifted and sculpted as she hovers in open space with sci fi synth flourishes.
“Killa” places Taylor over a deconstructed island stomp, with Davido putting a Carribean spin on the usual Auto-tune drivelry. The tropical stylings bleed into “Bad,” a short interlude in which Taylor affects an accent, and cheekily repeats, “You turned a good girl into a bad bitch,” setting the stage for the next track, “Wrong Bitch,” the sonic equivalent of shaking one’s head disapprovingly for just short of three minutes. The ‘90s and early ‘00s sounds that Taylor has teased in several songs — the Timbaland-esque, stripped down productions with heavy hi hats that paved the way for so much of today’s music — come into closer focus on “Shoot It Up” and “Bare With Me.” It’s a fitting sound for the “self-worth” section of the album, as it comes with a swagger that gets the point across perhaps more effectively than any words could.
Come “Lose Each Other,” the percussion drops out, and Taylor belts away about the prospect of staying friends after the dissolution of a relationship, as decadent ‘80s guitars have at it. We are now officially in the “vulnerability” section of the album. “Concrete” is an especially articulate number, with its title likening the inability of getting through to another to banging on pavement. The track brings back the ‘90s and ‘00s stylings, and simultaneously nods to trap with colorful tweaks. “Still” is a more timeless R&B track sonically, but a more timely one topically. On its face, it rings like a song about relationship drama, but Taylor has gone on record extending its lyrics to the struggle of being black in America. Next, Taylor adopts a more playful tone on “Ever Ever,” a song about the games that people play in romance. The track ends with Taylor singing along with a warbled, pitched down vocal, sounding as if she is misremembering a cherished period when she recalls, “It was the sweetest thing.”
“Try Again” has a rather wholesome, upbeat sound, fitting with the titular advice. At one point, Taylor interpolates the chorus of Aaliyah and Timbaland’s 2000 hit of the same name. “Friends” finds Taylor taunting and standing her ground, but eventually shrugging it off and telling the other party, “Go, do you” over a backdrop of gleeful gospel outpourings. “How Do You Want It?” is a sex jam, full of gatuitous detail, with a verse from rapper King Combs. At this point, the lines have really started to blur between Taylor’s album divisions. At any rate, Taylor makes her message clear in the end. On “Made It,” she emulates Juvenile’s flow from his seminal 1998 hit “Back That Azz Up,” and spins it into a self-empowerment anthem of sorts. Finally, she follows through, ending on a decidedly celebratory note with “We Got Love,” The phrase was originally suggested by Ms. Lauren HIll, who sent Taylor a voice note that makes its way into the recording, interspersed with such unabashedly positive statements as “Love is the new money.”
While “K.T.S.E.” offered plenty of excitement and showcased Teyana Taylor’s singing chops, “The Album” finds the artist rising to a new level. A lofty, conceptual work of this nature is a bit of a bold move to begin with, so it helps that Taylor’s “self-worth” songs are largely the type of unapologetic bravado that is a currency in contemporary R&B music. It’s rather funny how the sex songs make their way into the triumph section, and there is generally considerable overlap between the designated studios. It all still works as a cohesive collection, which is a significant feat, considering the album’s one-hour-and-seventeen-minute length. The array of illustrious featured artists is testament to Taylor’s significance as a leading R&B talent. Among the album’s most memorable qualities is how Taylor pays tribute to her favorite R&B of the ‘90s and early ‘00s, and revives those sounds with a modern spin. “The Album” finds her settling into a style of her own that is at once classic and futuristic.
“The Album” is available June 19 on Apple Music.