There’s something about the phrase “We need to talk” that causes hearts to palpitate and palms to sweat. It ushers in a wave of second guessing, causing you to replay every scenario in your head that might have elicited those four ominous words. We’ve all been there, but now singer-songwriter Tayla Parx is the one summoning us to reflect on how we engage in our intimate relationships. The Dallas-born singer’s debut album, We Need to Talk, explores the ways we participate in our own disappointments as partners.
We Need to Talk borrows its concept partly from Erykah Badu’s Mama’s Gun: Parx is an analog girl in a digital world. The album moves through a series of conversations—many of which are one sided—strewn across phone calls and voicemails, a choice that feels decidedly nostalgic in the age of social media. The singer bobs and weaves through the record’s futuristic pop production, telling stories of infatuation and heartache; some songs pull from pop predecessors like Destiny’s Child (“Rebound”) and the Backstreet Boys (“Disconnected”), while ballads like “Easy” showcase her disarming vocal range. Across the album’s 15 tracks, Parx’s message is direct: Communication is especially necessary in a modern dating culture that values swipes and double taps over a phone call.
“No matter what you go through in a relationship, and no matter what kind of situationship you’re in, communication can fix everything,” Parx says over the phone from Berlin, where she’s touring in support of Anderson .Paak. “What is the talking phase? What is that? You’re more than friends, but less than lovers.” For the 25-year-old, defining situationships, formerly known as “friends with benefits,” can be murky, but We Need to Talk adds some much-needed clarity.
Though you may not know it, Tayla Parx, born Taylor Parks, has probably already found a way into your life. When she was 12 years old, she was cast in the 2007 remake of Hairspray as Little Inez, a vibrant teen from the segregated Baltimore of the early 60s whose talent as a singer helps her climb the ranks of the entertainment industry. “I got a new way of moving and I got my own voice,” she sings in the film’s “Run and Tell That,” growling slightly. Growing up, she trained under legendary Fame actress Debbie Allen, who considered Parx a triple threat because she could sing, dance, and act. Two years after her film debut, she secured recurring roles on Nickelodeon’s True Jackson VP and Victorious. But Parx saw herself as more than an actress.
“It was a lot harder for me to get out of acting, because at the time, there were a lot of kids from Nickelodeon or Disney who wanted to do music,” she says, recalling the 360 deals she avoided like the plague. “Around the time I was 17, I found out that songwriting was actually a job. Apparently, there were people who were writing all of my favorite songs, [but] who weren’t getting any shine.” For Parx, it was the perfect opportunity to gain some experience while figuring out the sort of artist she wanted to be on her own. “The fun part of songwriting is the restrictions,” she says. “The capability to be able to fine-tune into something that is not you goes back into method acting.”
It’s been over a decade since her film debut, but Parx is still leaving fingerprints all over pop culture. Last year, she co-wrote Panic! at the Disco’s “High Hopes” and Khalid and Normani’s “Love Lies,” both of which flew into the top ten of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. She even secured a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year for her contributions to Janelle Monae’s 2018 album, Dirty Computer. This year, Parx lent her pen to two other chart-toppers you might know: Ariana Grande’s “thank u, next” and “7 Rings.”
Parx’s transition from acting to music found her relishing in the anonymity of working behind the scenes. But We Need to Talk is a reminder of the declaration she sang in Hairspray when she was 12 years old: “I got my own voice.” The album is proof that her professed habit of crafting 200 songs a year has made her a painfully concise songwriter, one who carefully crafts every moment of the record’s 15 tracks. She made the record in collaboration with producers like Rasool Diaz, Pierre-Luc “PL” Rioux, and Wynne Bennett, but crafted some of the album’s quirkiest flourishes herself, such as the beat made out an iMessage sound on “Afraid to Fall.” The sound of the outgoing message is anxiety-inducing, like the moment you send a risky text, only and see that the other person is typing.
The album opens like a budding romance. “I Want You” is a perfect pop song, with verses that build with anticipation before bleeding into an incessantly peppy chorus: “I want you / And you, and you, and you too,” she sings. Parx is enjoying the alternatives casual dating affords. “You know I like my options / I be switchin’ and swapping,” she says on the song’s final verse, reiterating the thesis from last year’s TaylaMade mixtape. “If you heard that mixtape, you know I went through the ‘I’m not looking for love’ phase,” she says. “I didn’t want to be locked down, and I like to keep my options open, but it’s all fun and games until you get hurt.”
She continues this thread until “Slow Dancing,” a song with fluttering flutes where she questions everything she thought she knew about herself. “I like slow dancing / I like romancing / Don’t panic, but I think I’m a typical girl,” she sings on the song’s chorus. Growing up, Parx considered herself a tomboy, but that changed in adulthood. “I found myself at a crossroads and loved pearls and all these ideas that are typically very feminine,” she tells me. Still, the album isn’t exactly an embrace of traditional gender roles. Parx intentionally omits pronouns on the album for inclusivity; she wants everyone to be able to relate to her songs. “Slow Dancing” sees her swearing off marriage as a 7-year-old, contrary to the idea that all young girls daydream of their wedding. “Why does something have to be too masculine or feminine based on my gender? It doesn’t even make sense,” she says.
Beyond gender norms, the song is also about the difficulty of finding love as a black woman when the need to work and stay afloat takes priority. When she sings, “Falling in love for me was unlikely / Not lowkey, but highkey / I’ll spill my heart all over this floor,” her vulnerability peeks out. “I realized since I was nine years old, I’d been so focused on my career that I never gave love a shot […],” she says on the phone. “Slow Dancing” is a preamble to the love she craves, a rebuttal to stereotypes casting black women as too strong, too angry, and too independent for romance. “For the first time in my life I questioned, who are you outside of what you do?”
Falling is a recurring motif on We Need to Talk, whether she’s singing about dodging commitment, or staring it in the face. There are moments where she fears falling in love (“Afraid to Fall”), and others when she recognizes she has already fallen (“What Can I Say”). “Falling for me feels like the scariest feeling in the world,” she tells me. “But the fear is what drives me to want to jump and see what’s on the other side. The worst thing that can happen is I get my feelings hurt and write a song about it.”
When Parx finally falls, she’s left picking herself up from the floor. “So baby, tell me, tell me that I / That I wasn’t alone when I lost my mind,” she sings on “Me vs. Us,” a track inspired by 80s synth-pop. After letting her guard down, Parx is left wondering if the person she chose is willing to choose her too.
More than half of the album revolves around the sobering realities of unrequited love. “Happy Birthday,” a brief interlude, finds Parx jovially singing an impromptu jingle for the person who has her heart, only to find that she’s been sent to voicemail. “Disconnected” is a seeming play on the Backstreet Boys’ 2000 single, “The Call,” its title doubling as a reference to the muddied communication that can take place in a relationship. At one point in the song, the audio cuts out like a Verizon commercial from 2002, as if to say, “Can you hear me now? Good.” “Did you say let’s date or let’s wait / Did you say we straight or we ain’t?” Parx sings. Through the fuzzy manipulation of the song, one line is particularly piercing: “You never know they ain’t the one / Until they ain’t the one.”
Of course, much of the longing Parx describes feeling runs contrary to the “Sometimes I’m choosy or greedy or both” lyric from the album’s opener. Parx is not unaware of the irony. “Maybe this is the way other people felt about me when I wanted options, but now I’m on the other side of the love song,” she tells me. “Sometimes it takes your ego being crushed for you to realize, ‘Now I get what this other person was saying.’”
You could make the argument that We Need to Talk is a funhouse—a deceptively good time filled with mirrors that reflect something unfamiliar back at you, an uptempo pop record that alerts you to the ways you’ve been toxic to someone else. On “Easy,” the final song, you can almost hear Parx’s heart breaking. “Thought there’d be a late night text, asking me where I’ve been at,” she sings, eager for a sign that she didn’t conjure up this relationship in her head. “This should be harder for you / But baby instead / You make it look easy.” It’s tempting to ignore the emotional roadblocks that lead us to heartache, but Tayla Parx isn’t letting us off the hook.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer for Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.