Given the last few years of popular music, it should be clear by now that we are living through a period of unstoppable excellence in hip-hop, R&B, and soul, a kind of Renaissance not unlike the Harlem jazz explosion of the 1920s, only global. Who would have thought back in 2007 that Odd Future, the hip-hop collective co-founded by enfant terrible Tyler, the Creator, would have spawned so much raw talent? Not only Tyler’s own solo work, but Frank Ocean’s era-defining rhythm-’n’-pop, Earl Sweatshirt’s mind-bending psych-rap, and Sydney Bennett’s group The Internet, who over the last few years have evolved from electro-tinged late-’00s blogger darlings to a fully-realized soul troupe, laying down languid funk tracks that wouldn’t seem out of place amongst your cool uncle’s dog-eared vinyl collection.
While Syd is not longer officially part of Odd Future, The Internet’s new album – the multi-layered and virtuosic Hive Mind – may go down as one of the most creatively rich pieces of music affiliated with the collective, up there with Channel Orange and Flower Boy. If The Internet’s Grammy-nominated third album Ego Death was their official foray into smooth retro-R&B, Hive Mind is the sound of Syd perfecting her magic formula, slow-cooking an alchemy of ’70s guitar funk, echoing rimshots, rubberband basslines, and dewey falsettos, and the end result is by far the best music the group have put out to date.
Hive Mind, much like its title suggests, is a collaborative effort; since their inception, The Internet have been slowly recruiting talented musicians to form something that’s closer to a collective than a traditional band. Guitarist Steve Lacy, bassist Patrick Page II and drummer Christopher Smith have all joined the group more or less recently, and while Syd definitely serves as frontwoman, their contributions are fundamental to Hive Mind’s success. Lacy especially – his scintillating guitars, both dry and lush at once, add a sweet flavor to tracks like lead single “Come Over” that set the album apart from so many of The Internet’s R&B peers. Despite their relatively young age, the musicians in The Internet are seasoned pros, and there’s an organic quality to their playing that’s impossible to fake.
“Come Over” makes due on Hive Mind’s old-school flair – it’s a honey-flow love jam, seeing Syd asking a woman to invite her over to her (probably extravagantly-furnished) place. One of the things that makes The Internet so magnetic is Syd’s personality; she pleads, but in that sexy way that makes the object of her desire believe that her attention is more suave flattery than her own insatiable longing. “I can turn you on/With my dirty mind/Say I won’t/Worth a try,” purrs Syd, deploying her heart-rending delivery like a veteran soul singer twice her age. The song also makes electrifying use of Lacy, both with his explosive, acidic guitar solo towards the middle of the song, but also during the outro, where he shoe-horns in his own verse. “These bitches want diamond rings (….)/I just don’t feel the same/Vanity’s not my thing,” he sings, his husky baritone cutting through the track’s chilled-out flow.
On “La Di Da,” an uptempo jam that is basically as high-energy as The Internet get on this record, founding member and keyboardist Matt Martians contributes to a short interlude: “Ladies, ladies, ladies, ladies, please/There’s enough of me to go around. I don’t bite…” Rather than merely secondary vocalists or back-up singers, it’s as if the male members of The Internet operate as fragments of Syd’s id, giving an alternate voice to her thoughts on dating, women, and sex. Throughout, though, her own perspective stays strong and clear: “Next Time/Humble Pie” depicts Syd’s regrets around a missed encounter with a girl: “Next time, I’ll just start by saying hi/Ask her what her name is/Start a conversation,” she sings. It’s raw and vulnerable, and it’s these emotions that form the dominating mood on Hive Mind.
It’s tempting to categorize Hive Mind as purely retro, but that would be much too patronizing and simplistic. This isn’t derivative music, or a group pining for nostalgia from an era they weren’t around to experience. It’s soul music through the prism of 2018, infused with all the hot tension, wavering confidence, and constant uncertainty of our times. What Syd and her merry band of brothers accomplish with their lyrics, voices, expert musicianship, and near-spiritual connection, is a portrait of what it is like to be a young person in the 21st century – black, female, queer, American, and everything in-between.