What defined American music of the 20th century? That’s probably a question many hardcore music fans such as myself have been eager to find an answer to and realized that it’s near impossible to find any singular artist, genre, record label, or movement that could define an entire century of groundbreaking musical innovation. While it’s fruitless to claim one singular occurrence in American musical history (during the 20th century) is the most crucial to music’s growth, some of the most defiant and critically praised came from the ’50s ’60s, being under the massively influential genre of Soul. Being an expansive take on Jazz and R&B music, Soul was an African-American dominated genre that reached elevated amounts of popularity throughout the United States, reaching both black and white audiences. Beginning primarily in the 60s with seminal artists such as Otis Redding (AKA “The King of Soul”), and the phenomenal Aretha Franklin, Soul, began to spread all around the nation, with genre-defining labels such as Motown and Stax bringing the best new releases to the turntables. Soul had an enormous cultural impact, too, as it gave the African-American community a unique voice in a racially divided America. The music style continued to gain massive popularity throughout the 60s and 70s, with 1971s What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye becoming one of the most celebrated records of all time. Soul had an expansive influence in other music styles as well, with pioneering Hip-Hop producers pulling countless samples from Soul records to lace the groovy beats they would spin at block parties in the Bronx throughout the 70s and 80s. Soul would continue to have a tremendous influence in the vast musical world going into the turn of the 21st century, with new sounds and artists being poured into the ears of eager listeners. One such group to please listeners with a refreshing sound is the phenomenal band known as The Internet.
At the time of the band’s conception, a new piece in the vast history of Hip-Hop was being created, that being the controversial label founded in 2011 by Tyler the Creator, Odd Future. Odd Future is responsible for the birth of critically acclaimed artists such as Earl Sweatshirt, Tyler the Creator, and Frank Ocean. Odd Future wasn’t just a record label, though. The original Odd Future collective was a Hip-Hop group that featured over a dozen different rappers, producers, singers, etc. (as well as the previously mentioned artists). Odd Future rose to popularity throughout the early 2010s. During this spike in fame, they also garnered much controversy for their eccentric actions and their violent and graphic approach to lyricism, with Tyler the Creator even being banned from the U.K. for several years. Throughout Odd Future’s career, some of the members split off to form their subsequent groups and projects, the most notable being The Internet, which consisted of Syd tha Kyd and Matt Martians from Odd Future. The Internet released their debut album in 2011, to some mixed reception, and released their second full-length in 2013, adding two new members to the group. While their second record garnered some praise, their 2015 Grammy-nominated third record called Ego Death established the group as a legitimate collective who truly knew what they were doing.
Ego Death is one of my favorite records of all time. There’s a vast amount of reasons why that is, but what I believe this record does best is having a wide variety of different dynamics and sounds while still being tonally consistent. When tackling an entire album front to back head-on, it’s crucial to view the piece as a whole, to think about how the tracks weave together, how it flows. That’s where the concepts of consistency and cohesiveness come into play; how consistent a record’s tone is will determine a large portion of the record’s cohesiveness. It will determine how tightly the album flows from start to finish. Ego Death is flawlessly cohesive all the way through. However, it somehow manages to create unique sounding jams that shift dynamically from track to track while still maintaining the groovy funk sound that’s reminiscent of the legends of Soul that came long before. For example, the first track titled “Get Away” kicks off the album with a simple yet heavy bass line supported with hard-hitting percussion and lead singer Syd’s passionate voice expressing the many frustrations a relationship can bring, and wraps up in about two and a half minutes. Then the song is immediately followed by the smooth track titled “Gabby,” where a heavy but funky bass establishes a sharp groove, where the angelic voice of Syd complements every groove the song throws at the listener. After that, the track “Under Control” provides jazzy percussion along with warm and satisfying guitar licks throughout the track. Syd invites the listener with an infectious hook, where Syd reassures her band that they will keep moving forward with confidence and dignity. All three of the songs mentioned feature the groovy bass riffs and smooth guitar and keyboard sounds that have made The Internet a staple in the Neo-Soul era of Soul music and shift in tempo and energy, making each listener feel more engaged in the musical expertise that each member exemplifies. Every song on Ego Death can remain intense and infectious while fluctuating the range of dynamics each musical component can reach. Some other stand out tracks from the record include the widely popular “Girl,” a slow and passionate track at the midway point of the album where Syd expresses her unconditional love for an unknown lover on top of spacey production from KAYTRANADA. Another one would be “Special Affair,” a very sensual song with a repetitive bass lick that somehow never becomes stale and a drum machine that features a simple kick and snare, with a 1/8 note hi-hat coming for the hook. The last one I’ll shout out is the two-part closer track titled “Palace/Curse.” The first section features vocals from Tyler the Creator, and lays down a danceable groove to create this celebratory/party vibe that is monumentally fun to listen to, while the second features vocals from guitarist Steve Lacy and provides a buildup that results in a dramatic rendition of the sections leading hook.
Ego Death stands apart from the vast crowd of modern R&B records as its entirely its sound. You can hear many influences in the tracks, but the group weaves their spirit and characteristics into the songs, which results in a phenomenal Neo-Soul masterpiece. Each member of the group have released solo material since 2015 and have even gone on to release a fourth record titled Hive Mind, which is also a stunningly gorgeous album. Still, it will always be Ego Death that made me question the heights that songwriting could truly achieve. This record has shaped me as a musician. It has ultimately been a great part of my musical experience. I recommend this record to anybody, it’s beyond refreshing, and it delivers in every aspect of an album.