Syd - Fin (Album Review)

Thursday, 02 March 2017 Written by Jonathan Rimmer

The term might sound tacky and unnecessary now, but ‘alternative R&B’ was an exciting and innovative concept at the turn of the decade. After years of silver-tongued heartthrobs dominating the charts, artists like Frank Ocean represented a welcome change of pace.

Of all Ocean’s previous collaborators, Syd Bennett perhaps understood his vision better than anybody. Her work with Odd Future offshoot The Internet was stunning, showcasing her sensual voice and unique personality alongside soulful melodies and head-nodding grooves.

Unfortunately, Syd’s first solo outing, ‘Fin’, feels like something of a regression. The mainstream landscape has changed to the point where megastars like Rihanna and Beyoncé are embracing a sultry minimalist style. In that sense, this album is a missed opportunity to reinforce why Syd’s is a voice worth hearing.

And there are many reasons. The fact Syd is gay and singing about women might mean little to some critics, but it’s contextually relevant given contemporary R&B’s relationship with misogyny and homophobia.

Her approach to songwriting is also distinctive. Although she has a strong voice, it’s not generally at the forefront of the mix. This tactic works well on busier tracks like Know, where lush synths and chopped up vocal samples collide with off-kilter percussion.

She’s also unashamed about being direct in her message. Nothin to Somethin and Body are unfussy tracks about sex delivered in elegant and unpretentious fashion. There’s no overarching metaphor – Syd even described the latter as the ‘baby-making anthem of 2017’.

The fact that Syd has chosen to cover such topics and orient her music towards a mainstream audience isn’t the problem – if anything, she doesn’t go far enough. Regardless of theme or style, so much of this record feels deliberately controlled, like she’s worried about revealing too much of herself.

Her refined song structures and classy production clearly demonstrate she has a grasp on presentation, but she rarely throws herself into the scenarios she paints. On Trilogy-era Weeknd tracks you can almost smell the sweat and debauchery, while FKA twigs’ music invites you into her chaotic headspace. This is different.

‘Fin’ feels discerningly and unsettlingly safe by comparison; its tracks’ sonic depth undermined by lyrical platitudes and a lack of melodic adventure. In choosing to adjust her sound to suit a wider audience, Syd’s stylistically surrendered more than she needs to.

As if to prove this point, she closes with the one track where she truly bursts out her shell. Insecurities is the album’s clear standout, a convincing and affecting display of vulnerability: “I really loved you, girl, but something’s gotta change.” Again, it’s blunt, but simply stepping down to invite the listener into her journey changes the entire tone.

In the long term, Syd will likely find new ways of reinventing herself. She’s musically accomplished and has the sort of gift for arrangement that will make any project enjoyable on an aesthetic level. But she needs to have more confidence in her abilities. It’s a lack of character that holds ‘Fin’ back from being truly immersive.

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