After a much anticipated return to music, Teyana Taylor’s electrifying sophomore experiment with Kanye West only proves that the best is yet to come.
“[The luxury of time] only comes when u have a skill set that your confident in.” - Pusha-T, 2018
“Shut the fuck up and enjoy the greatness.” - Kanye West, 2016
In a vacuum, the epigraph highlights wise words from the 41-year old head of GOOD Music and the similarly middle-aged executive producer of Teyana Taylor’s sophomore album. However, Pusha-T’s claim that GOOD Music has the “luxury of time” has only unraveled over this past month, burdened by West’s self-imposed deadlines and experimentation in form. Now, barely 72 hours after her first album in nearly four years, when she could be celebrating her moment, Teyana is on a radio tour apologizing to her core fans. During a recent interview with Big Boi, she all but promises a brand new album; it’s a shame that such a genuinely beautiful and elegant body of work will forever be marred by such an off-putting asterisk.
Teyana’s debut is underrated, and now her follow-up risks going down the same path. VII was called “seven” because that number held significance for Teyana, but even she didn’t want her return to the game to be bound by an arbitrary mandate and claustrophobic use of samples that appear and disappear without her knowledge. It’s clear that Kanye is actively working to shirk traditionalist tendencies, and maybe it’s a fateful fit for someone who has had a career as elusive as Teyana Taylor’s. But Teyana has also never shied away from her classically trained roots and a more longform approach to her sophomore album may have been appropriate.
As talented as Teyana is, she is still being treated as somewhat of an accessory, another ornament for GOOD Music’s hard-fought sense of prestige. This off-the-cuff approach has given both Teyana and her fans demo-itis, effectively diminishing some of the album’s intended impact. There’s an alternate version of “Rose in Harlem”; there’s a missing Lauryn Hill interlude; there were clearance issues post-listening party; there’s an eighth track. I get it - it’s easy to blame Kanye these days - but, to be fair, it’s as much Teyana’s ambitious nature as it is Kanye’s manic spurts of inspiration.
The intro is extravagantly gothic and self-assured in its opulence; “No Manners” sounds like something a modern day Gatsby would have looped on Spotify in an attempt to impress his Daisy. The slow build of drums and the careful pullback of the initial grandeur plays perfectly into the following ballad, “Gonna Love Me.” Subtle with a gritty undertone, this one allows Teyana room to showcase her developing range as she flits freely over a tasteful Delfonics sample. The first verse is one of the album’s most revealing; wisned lessons from one who has been scorned, done the scorning, and now seeks a respite from it all:
Sometimes we say things that we really don't mean
We do things in between the lines
We should do more than stand out
I'm sorry if I made you feel less than who you are
A little insecure, oh, you's a shining star
The call and answer between her and Randy Cane builds the foundation for the album’s first major highlight, “Issues/Hold On,” a song about trust, neurosis, and the invaluable currency of spousal reassurance. Yet because of that busy, Daft Punk laser-laden beat, it’s also the kind of dystopian instrumental that might be played at a candlelight vigil the night after the proletariat finally storm the blood-soaked shores of Mars and dethrone Elon Musk.
Teyana’s magnetic performance throughout the album is often awe-inspiring, but the gut-feeling that there simply isn’t enough only continues to deepen with each passing track. Kanye’s rapping on the following cut, ironically titled “Hurry”, is brief, but he still takes up precious screen-time to pull a Stan Lee. The racy, colorfully detailed, “3Way” was smoothly sinking into the lustful, unbridled depths of Teyana’s id, only for Ty Dolla $ign to enter and sleaze the whole thing up. As much as I love the guy and his admittedly lush vocals, Ty is undoubtedly the most overused instrument currently at Ye’s disposal.
None of that matters once “Rose in Harlem” hits, mournful as it is triumphant. A single rose in a sea of cracked concrete represents desolation as much as it does hope, and Teyana’s voice allows her to invoke visceral yet nuanced reactions. This is perhaps best exemplified on the penultimate track, “Never Would Have Made It”. Produced solely by Ye, it opens with a soulful interpolation of the Marvin Snapp song of the same name, capped off with touching vocal samples of Teyana’s firstborn. It’s an explosive and transformative declaration of commitment with a twinkling vocal performance that swings from innocent to impassioned, doubtful to hopeful, insecure to self-aware.
Despite Kanye’s best attempts at subverting the expected, the young talent manages to place herself in a league of her own, arguably above her more seasoned male colleagues. In the dead of the night, Teyana managed to turned a bougie LA corner into a Harlem block party. Assured even in the face of Kanye’s unpredictability, she delivers a series of soulful vignettes, making the absolute most of her limited screen time. K.T.S.E.'s ability to successfully offer a smattering of so many different styles is what one would assume these seven song projects were originally meant to do, before Kanye got carried away. In the same way Rihanna's Anti was important in pushing a foray of eclectic influences into the mainstream, K.T.S.E. is very much essential in this current R&B climate.