At the age of 29, Teyana Taylor has now spent more of her life in the public eye than out of it. A precocious talent, the Harlem-raised artist choreographed for Beyoncé while barely out of eighth grade, and was scouted and signed by Pharrell Williams shortly after, even if it was the 2007-turn on MTV’s ‘My Super Sweet Sixteen’ that first put her on the radar of many.
Taylor has more than proven her versatility in the interim, acting, directing, modelling, dancing and choreographing in addition to singing. And yet, in terms of her solo career, the various machinations of the music industry have meant she’s never quite fulfilled her early potential. Thanks to the legal wranglings required to liberate herself from Williams’ label, Taylor’s official debut album didn’t appear ‘til 2014, and the release of 2018’s Kanye West-produced follow-up, ‘K.T.S.E.’ wasn’t without controversy. Recorded during West’s Wyoming sessions and rolled-out last, after ‘Daytona’, ‘Ye’, ‘Kids See Ghosts’, and ‘Nasir’, the 22-minute record features songs reportedly truncated without Taylor’s knowledge.
Spiritually, then, you could argue that this 23-track strong, almost 90-minute long LP is the sound of Taylor saying, “Enough.” Certainly, ‘The Album’ finds the veteran performer firmly reclaiming her own narrative with a suite of songs intended to elucidate all aspects of her identity, and one that has been divided accordingly into five thematic sections: love, sexuality, self-worth, vulnerability, and triumph.
We’re drawn in close from the offset, with an introduction interpolating audio recordings of her husband Iman Shumpert’s public proposal and of his panicked 911 call following the unexpected homebirth of their daughter, Jumie. Now four years old, Jumie appears on ‘Come Back To Me’ alongside – and billed before – Rick Ross, while NBA star and sometime rapper Shumpert contributes a verse to ‘Wake Up Love’. The liquid groove of the latter is characteristic of the neo-soul-centred first movement, which reaches its natural conclusion in the Erykah Badu-starring and sampling ‘Lowkey’.
Though West returns to co-produce on ‘Made It’, stylistically ‘The Album’ represents a marked move away from the old school samples and lo-fi beats of ‘K.T.S.E.’ For the most part, this is sleek, soulful, 90s-referencing R&B, be it the Aaliyah-referencing ‘Try Again’ or the Mase-sampling ‘How You Want It’. There’s a palpable sense of Taylor reconnecting with her own musical roots, having previously been used more as a foil for other people’s visions.
Considering the calibre of collaborators across the record – be it guest stars like Badu, Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott, or producers Timbaland and Mike Dean – it’s telling that Taylor is never outshone, such is her charisma and variety as a performer. Trading come-ons with Kehlani on ‘Morning’ she’s simultaneously seductive and vulnerable, while the ‘Rude Boy’-esque ‘Bad’ finds her leaning into her Trinidadian inflections and delivering a supple yet steely vocal performance. ‘Still’ is even starker, a true emotional standout, climaxing in the sort of ragged breaths only caused by real tears. Equally, the performances she coaxes from her guests are startling, be it a rare sung-cameo from Elliott on ‘Boomin’, or Hill’s motivational voice note played out at the climax of ‘We Got Love.’
The latter proves an apt conclusion to a refreshingly personal album in which the overriding message is self-love, regardless of the circumstances. Like its creator, ‘The Album’ is by no means flawless, but this is as honest a reflection of Taylor as we’ve encountered yet. And taking into consideration the context of the record’s release – timed to coincide with Juneteenth, and unwittingly arriving in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter marches taking place across the globe – this defiant celebration of Black excellence feels especially vital.