Neptunes children: The Internet’s Syd and Matt Martians strike out solo
After three albums as The Internet, Odd Future affiliates Syd and Matt Martians go it alone on their debut solo albums. While one continues to follow their longtime lodestar Pharrell, the other has shifted into a new gear to channel the seductive R&B of vintage Timbaland.
When members of musical groups go solo, armchair critics use it as an opportunity to figure out who was the bigger talent all along. Sometimes it’s easy (Destiny’s Child); other times more contentious (OutKast). But on their debut solo albums, the founding members of The Internet – Syd (née Bennett) and Matt Martians – have refused to play into that game, defying expectations and easy classifications as they have their entire careers.
The Internet first came together in 2011, a pairing of two behind-the-scenes players which seemed like barely a blip on the Odd Future radar. At that time, Tyler, the Creator and his band of enfants terribles were making headlines with controversy-courting rap albums, Frank Ocean’s out-of-nowhere debut and the mystery regarding the whereabouts of Earl Sweatshirt.
By the end of the year, The Internet released Purple Naked Ladies, a collection of experimental neo-neo-soul with a psychedelic sheen. The album wasn’t miles away from Martians’ work as one half of The Jet Age of Tomorrow, his duo with Hal Williams, aka Pyramid Vritra, albeit with the addition of Syd’s barely there vocals. The Internet took a different approach to Odd Future’s obsession with all things Pharrell and subverted the collective’s subversive instincts, naming a freaky, nearly lyric-less jam session ‘Cunt’ and a seductive funk come-on ‘Cocaine’. Despite its unevenness, the album was filled with unexpected – and, compared to Odd Future, subtle – surprises.
“At a time when Odd Future was dissolving, The Internet looked likely to be one of the collective’s biggest successes”
The duo returned in 2013 with Feel Good, a tighter album of breezy neo-soul numbers and lush funk stompers. The songwriting was stronger, and even if her voice was still wisp-thin, Syd displayed a new confidence. They joined Tyler and Earl in netting contributions from their idols, The Neptunes: Chad Hugo lent a hand on the ‘Rock Your Body’-reminiscent ‘Dontcha’. And while it had fewer diversions and distractions, Feel Good found time for jam sessions and experimental jaunts.
Years of experimentation and growth culminated with Ego Death, their masterful 2015 album. The album was the first to feel like the effort of a full band, with touring members-turned-full-timers Patrick Paige, Christopher Smith and Steve Lacy credited for their contributions throughout. Ego Death is full of radio-ready rumblers like ‘Get Away’ and ‘Girl’ and N.E.R.D-y songs like ‘Gabby’, ‘Under Control’ and ‘Somthing’s Missing’; it’s also the least nostalgic of the band’s albums, presenting a unique vision for R&B in the modern era. At a time when Odd Future was dissolving, The Internet looked likely to be one of the collective’s biggest successes, alongside Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt.
Then, just as The Internet was coming into its own as a band, its members announced plans for solo albums. But unlike Odd Future – whose members focused on increasingly separate solo careers – The Internet saw their solo projects as necessary steps in the evolution of The Internet. “Once we all drop our solo projects, I know we’ll all feel free to do whatever is best for the band, for the Internet album,” Syd told The Fader. In the same interview, Martians explained that The Internet wasn’t even at their highest plane of collaboration: despite contributions from the other members, Ego Death was assembled “piecemeal” by himself, Syd and Lacy. Future Internet material would be born from collaborative jam sessions, like ‘Under Control’, which he described as “the first true Internet song”.
“The bang-on-the-door beat of ‘Where Are Yo Friends?’ is pure Neptunes”
Their debut solo albums have arrived only a week apart, led by Martians with The Drum Chord Theory, an album that should please fans of Jet Age of Tomorrow and The Internet. He recorded every “sound, vocal, blip blap or idea” in his bedroom studio (pictured on the album’s cover), and the album’s space-funk feels particularly terrestrial as Martians looks for and loses love, his requests (“Spend the night”; “Go all the way”) and promises (“If you were my girlfriend, I would make you feel good”) simple, his struggles deceptively so (“Every time I think I found the one, something always goes wrong”; “Show me what love is”).
The album is only three-quarters of an hour long, but feels denser and deeper thanks to his habit of flipping the script after intros, bridges and outros. Two of the songs make these separations explicit – ‘Alotta Women/Useless’ starts off a smoky ATCQ-esque throwback before giving way to Funkadelic noodling, for example – but elsewhere, the changes are unexpected, like on ‘What Is Love’ and ‘Callin’ on Me’. It’s such a frequent trick that the playground balladry of ‘Baby Girl’ end with Martians promising that there “ain’t no hidden track back here.”
While Martians is pushing his songs to illogical conclusions, he keeps a familiar figure in the forefront of his mind: Pharrell Williams, whether solo, as a Neptune or a N.E.R.D. The bang-on-the-door beat of ‘Where Are Yo Friends?’ is pure Neptunes; the off-kilter swing of ‘Dent Jusay’ is pure N.E.R.D.; the laidback ‘Southern Isolation’ reminiscent of Pharrell’s breakthrough remix of SWV’s ‘Right Here’. This makes sense, especially since The Internet spent so much time exploring the many faces of Pharrell (Martians once explained that N.E.R.D. “showed that you could be a cool, nerdy black kid and make really weird music,” while Syd said the band “wouldn’t be here without N.E.R.D.”). And with Pharrell spending his time getting lucky and being ‘Happy’, Martians is a welcome candidate to carry Williams’ old torch.
At the end of the album’s journey, on the percussive outro to bonus track ‘Elevators’, Martians offers some explanation. “I didn’t really have any expectations for this. I just wanted to make something. So it’s awesome that I made something that was me. I’m a weird ass n***a, and, uh, I think that this album really shows me,” he says, adding, as almost an afterthought, “Oh yeah, this is like, my only album ever.” So it seems Matt Martians’ solo career is “over” just as it was beginning.
“Fin finds Syd finally putting herself – her come-up, her sexuality, all of it – centerstage”
Before its release, Syd downplayed her album in a similar fashion. “This album is not that deep, but I feel like this is my descent into the depth I want the band to get to,” she told the Fader. “For me, this is like an in-between thing — maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.” Was that simply a savvy way to lower expectations? Perhaps. But it is also a prism through which to view the album: as a detour on the way to The Internet’s next album. (Titling the album Fin might be a clue as to her future intentions as well.)
While The Drum Chord Theory is a weed-and-acid-fueled meditation on the magic of Pharrell Williams, Fin finds Syd finally putting herself – her come-up, her sexuality, all of it – centerstage. She sings about “moving from middle to upper class” on ‘No Complaints,’ and toasts her Odd Future brethren on ‘All About Me’: “Take care of the family that you came with / We made it this far and it’s amazing.”
Elsewhere, her breathy vocals are at their most seductive, whether asking paramours to “keep it on the low” on ‘Know’ or turning down the lights on ‘Smile More’. She pays tribute to her lover’s bodies with her body, especially on the sawtoothed lapdance titled ‘Body’. On powerful interlude ‘Drown In It’ she is a fount of actions: swimming, drowning, hiding, living, dying, swallowing, following, falling in all of it. And she follows the relationship to the end, confidently saying it’s ‘Over’ or revealing her ‘Insecurities’: “I pack my bags but never leave, because it’s so hard to walk away.”
Musically, Pharrell is not as much an influence as his late-90s, early-2000s compatriot, Timbaland, from the hydraulic beat and wistful melody of ‘Shake Em Off’ to the string swells and syncopation of ‘Know’ to the buoyancy of strip club anthem ‘Dollar Bills’. Syd also adds some pitch-shifted vocals in which it’s impossible not to hear approximations Timbo’s on-mic contributions to the work of Missy, Aaliyah et al. The Timbaland-inspired songs are the best on Fin; Syd’s attempts at gauzy trap’n’b (‘All About Me’, ‘Got Her Own’) do the trick, but they feel like perfunctory radio tracks.
But if the goal was to present Syd as the star she is – albeit an unlikely one, as an out-and-proud lesbian with a voice that doesn’t have the range of her contemporaries – than Fin succeeds. And while it may not have the same staying power, The Drum Chord Theory succeeds by letting Matt Martians be a self-described “weird ass n***a.” Since every member of The Internet is currently looking to exorcise some demons and tinker with their own toys before getting back to band practice, solo efforts by Patrick Paige, Christopher Smith and Steve Lacy promise to be equally successful. If Odd Future was a meteor that exploded in many different directions, The Internet is a star in supernova on its way to being denser and stronger than ever.
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