Teyana Taylor – K.T.S.E. (Kanye. Takes. Spotlights. Evermore.)
It’s 2018, nine years since Kanye rushed the stage to defend Beyoncé at the MTV Music Awards, and Kanye has stolen the spotlight from yet another Taylor. But this time “Imma let you finish” wasn’t for the sake of a unique, talented black woman. It was in spite of one.
Taylor first made a mainstream impact in 2010, as one of many artists supporting Kanye’s apology album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As a background feature on one of the best opening songs in hip-hop, her angelic vocals defined the chorus, asking “Can we get much higher?” The answer then, and now, is a definite yes; so why is Kanye keeping her down? In 2012, Taylor officially signed to Kanye’s G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music label, a subdivision of Def Jam Recordings. Two years later, after continuing a run of features with her label mates (including usual suspects such as John Legend, Pusha T and, of course, Kanye) and label mates’ mates (including R. Kelly), Taylor finally released her debut studio album VII. The debut was met with praise but was marked by its delayed release. Kanye would later admit on The Breakfast Club that he “didn’t support her enough.” But, recognising the problem isn’t solving the problem. Fast forward to today, and the release of her first project for years: K.T.S.E. (or, Keep That Same Energy).
K.T.S.E. is the fifth in a run of consecutively-released projects that were curated in Jackson Hole, Wyoming by Kanye. The first four albums were marked by a rule, as per @kanyewest: each track list would be no longer than seven songs. K.T.S.E. runs to eight – perhaps a glimpse of much-needed rebellion?
The first song, ‘No Manners’, is barely longer than a minute and a half; as if the album already risked outstaying its welcome. Taylor has no verses, instead she twice sings through a “chorus” that isn’t really a chorus at all. The actual central piece to the song is a distorted vocal sample – classic Kanye! And this is wherein the problem lies: this isn’t classic Taylor, this isn’t even current Taylor. It’s Kanye. I, too, would chant the same lines over-and-over just to be heard once.
The second track is a catchy sample from The Delfonics (the late ‘60s RnB/Soul group also sampled by The Fugees for their hit ‘Ready or Not’). Indeed, ‘Gonna Love Me’ is so heavily sampled that it does feel like just that: a sample from The Delfonics. But, nonetheless, it is pure and wholesome. Teyana’s vocals connect with your soul. A similar problem with an ubiquitous sample lies in ‘Issues/Hold On’, except this double-song is also spliced with snippets of audio taken, presumably, from the latest space-star-battleship-galactica-wars-saga-movie-thing, and I don’t really know why. Teyana doesn’t either, having since gently remarked: “they playin’ Mario on my s@#t!” It’s also not even, really, a double-song; no change in tone half-way, or dual meaning. There might be an artistic reason why the title is as it is, but who should we ask? The artist who didn’t know her album had been released until we did? Or Kanye “I do not like to think at all” West?
Continuing the theme of songs that sound okay but have had random crap thrown in: the next track is ‘Hurry’, featuring (you guessed it!) Kanye West. The Kanye feature is random, which isn’t to say unexpected. But at this point, almost half way through the fifth album in the Wyoming roll-out, it’s hard to get mad at it. What was both random and unexpected are these sexy-but-not moans coming from Teyana. One wonders whether, even here, she got to take creative license. It simply distracts from the song, which is short, simple, and just fine.
None of these songs, which have thus far been either basic or weak, prepare us for the best of the rest: ‘3Way’, featuring Ty Dolla $ign. He has a literal dollar sign ($!) in his name. That’s how you know he’s cool enough to pull off a feature on a song so audacious as to literally be called ‘3Way’, with the number ‘3’ not spelled out – because who has time to spell out three-way when you are having actual three-ways? Teyana sounds beautiful and raw, with any flaws or limits in her voice coming across as emotionally real. This is the first song not overly-dominated by a Kanye sample and it is very much Teyana’s song. The song is so consistently sombre and sincere that, even when Ty shamelessly sings ‘I watch you licking on her while I beat it from the back’, your heart pours.
Teyana has lamented the edit of the next track, ‘Rose in Harlem’, but it’s still one of the most inspired on the project. Samples weren’t cleared, which meant that a verse is missing and there was a distortion of structure and tone. But what’s left is still worth having. The sample is dominant, but feels appropriate. The refrain (”It be the ones”!) is stand-out, and the lyrics are enjoyably testimonial (“If it ain’t ’bout blessings/ I can’t even address it”).
In the penultimate track, ‘Never Would Have Made It’, Teyana pays tribute to her mother and other inspos by sampling Marvin Sapp’s gospel single of the same name, itself a dedication to his late father. Sapp claims that his original version was created by divine inspiration. Unfortunately, God did not make it to Wyoming. Or, at least, one hopes not…because, like its predecessors, the track is just, like, fine. It feels like an admirable attempt at a Whitney cover. A good cover, mind you…better than karaoke…but a lot worse than the real thing. This is neither helped by Teyana’s struggling vocals, nor the short-cut production. The choir arrangement, a beautiful and rousing standard of Kanye’s ‘The Life of Pablo’, is lacklustre – a copy-and-paste from the cutting room floor, one which Kanye moved on from in 2016. It’s these slap-dash sections that make for a neglected song, and a neglected project.
In the random-enough closer, ‘WTP’, Teyana makes adamant her connection to Vogue, the underground LGBT+ dance culture. No one is much aware of what this connection might be, but it seems legit. Sure, she didn’t get an actual vogue MC to do the vogue MCing. And sure, the song is certainly a tribute and not a proper vogue song, which seldom includes more than a beat and a live MC. But she has represented vogue culture on The Wendy Williams Show, and that feels like enough. Oh, and, the song is, like, fine. The ‘MC’ bigs up Teyana like Kanye won’t, Teyana sings decently well, and there’s an audio clip from Paris is Burning – the Vogue Bible. It’s a lot of stuff, none of which is particularly special.
K.T.S.E. can feel a bit…a bit…all over the place. Not in an awful way: the album certainly has range, which is something to be desired; references to grief-stricken evangelicals and otherwise-stricken playthings make the 25-minute cut. But the project is held together by not much. It’s promising…but next time, she’ll need actual support. Even a text about the album release would be an improvement; artistic freedom would be best.
Featured image: The Diamond Cross Ranch in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, where K.T.S.E and the four other albums produced by Kanye West this year were recorded.