Teyana Taylor regains control of her art across a long and complex album, one that deftly recontextualizes classic R&B and better represents the fierce persona she has honed in public.
Among the many injustices Black women must endure in the U.S. is this cruel fact: We are up to four times more likely to die in childbirth than white mothers. In New York City, Teyana Taylor’s hometown, the disparity is even more staggering. People like Beyoncé and Serena Williams have shared their own experiences with maternal health, driving some coverage into the news cycle and confirming that not even fame and seven-star healthcare can vanquish medical racism. Though Taylor doesn’t call it out directly, this context skulks around the first minute of The Album, whose intro repurposes leaked audio of the 911 call that chronicled the bathroom-floor delivery of her firstborn daughter Junie in 2015. “I’m holding my daughter in my hands,” mewls husband Iman Shumpert, before scrambling to tie off the umbilical cord.
Junie, now 5, is the next voice to appear, softening the tension of her arrival into the world with a merry “turn it up!” She croons alongside her mother and Rick Ross on “Come Back to Me,” joining a club of celebrity children earning major-label royalty statements. The song is followed by another family affair; “Wake Up Love” features Shumpert, Brooklyn Nets shooting guard and part-time rapper, doing a gentle André 3000 impression. Last week, a cherubic video for the single doubled as an announcement that the couple is expecting their second child.
Since becoming a mother and foregrounding her family, Taylor has found new momentum. When her slick, sexy turn as a “protective lioness” in Kanye West’s 2016 video for “Fade” introduced her to new audiences, she seized on the curiosity about her postpartum physique to create a dance-fitness business. (Taylor was careful in interviews to push back against scrutiny of women’s bodies after pregnancy.) She has also opened a nail salon named after Junie, starred in a family reality show alongside Shumpert, and launched The Aunties, a familial production company that has directed videos for Schoolboy Q and Lil Duval.
The Album, Taylor’s third album, better represents the fierce persona she has honed in public. It is something of a corrective to 2018’s K.T.S.E., the project that concluded Kanye’s messy Wyoming spring. Taylor shined over some of her label boss’ most compelling production in years, but the men of G.O.O.D. Music fumbled her rollout and released a version she hadn’t approved herself. It recalled her early music experiences as a teen signed to Pharrell’s Star Trak label, when she was denied the autonomy she craved. This time, recording largely while quarantined at home during the pandemic, Taylor snatches her control back. “When people hear the album, they will understand what my frustration was with K.T.S.E. Trying to put a lot of emotion within seven songs is tough. To have a full album, you get to literally express yourself and every single part of you,” she said in an interview with NPR.
At 23 songs, The Album is several times longer than K.T.S.E and infinitely more complex. Taylor splits it across five sections—in addition to the family-themed first bit, there are mini-chapters that explore desire, strength, drama, and joy. This, Taylor exudes, is the project she has always intended to make. In the absence of Kanye (he only has two credits here, both left over from earlier sessions), she opts for beats from Cardiak, Ayo N Keyz, and NOVA Wav—prolific, but not quite transgressive producers whose contemporary R&B sounds ground Taylor’s tremendous vocal ability. Her speaking voice, deep and raspy, is the source, flowing into a broad range that includes a robust upper register.
The album’s best moments come when she’s at her most playful and inventive: coaxing Quavo into singing on “Let’s Build,” turning Erykah Badu’s “Next Lifetime” into a self-assured kiss-off on “Lowkey,” trading accents with Afropop star Davido on ”Killa.” It sags in the fourth section, where Taylor perhaps overcompensates for the brevity of K.T.S.E. with one too many ballads. Still, for an album that lives mostly in the slow- and mid-tempo, it frisks and frolics. Taylor has a unique talent for drawing discovery and rapture out of sexual tropes, actualizing R&B at its best.
On one song, the DJ Camper-produced “1800-One-Night,” she breathily experiments with foreplay-as-jingle. It has the smoky, neon glare of a late-night TV ad, but the single-minded focus of a long-awaited encounter: “This time I’ll let you do things with me that we wanted to/This time is your time to shine, yeah,” Taylor sings, emphasizing the mutual consent and shared desires that “we” signifies. Instead of drums, a meaty bassline and trapezing synths intertwine below Taylor, forming a trampoline that send her vocals flying.
Taylor remains fascinated with updating classic R&B, summoning an impressive tribe of elders—Badu, Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliott—for intergenerational power. The Album drips with references to recognizable hits from the ’90s and ’00s: She interpolates, references, or samples the sticky romance of Guy, the cheeky sass of Blaque, and the neo-soul warmth of Musiq Soulchild, among a handful of others. But even for nostalgia bait, The Album is extremely effective, subtly recontextualizing recognizable melodies into the present rather than relying on their familiarity for comfort. The strategy also does cynical double duty, pointing directly to the “’90s-inspired” makeup collection Taylor recently launched with MAC; it’s the sort of product tie-in that a marketing manager could only dream of. But it’s not all business. The abundance of successfully cleared features and references reads like a sly rejoinder to the sample clearance issue that blunted K.T.S.E.’s release; where her former label once failed, she doubled down. The allusion to a musical legacy does the important work of contextualizing Taylor within the genre as a masterful, almost-alternative soul singer, lest anyone else try to do it for her.