In Spite of Everything, Teyana Taylor's Album Is a Triumph
'K.T.S.E' is Teyana Taylor's soul-tinged sophomore effort, but much of Kanye West's antics overshadowed her release. It’s Taylor’s time now, and she’s talented enough to control her own narrative.
Gary Gershoff/Getty Images for VH1
It’s no secret that Kanye West loves to talk. MTV knows this too, because they granted him another slot on their Video Music Award stage a year after he announced a possible presidential candidacy. In 2016, he introduced the new video for “Fade,” an 80s-inspired cut from The Life of Pablo. He rambled for six minutes, presenting a preamble to his free-thinking rhetoric, obnoxiously calling the entire crowd “bro.” When the video premiered, all the talk of Kanye washed away, focusing on its leading lady. For three minutes, the world stopped. “Fade” featured a 25-year-old Teyana Taylor, performing choreography so sexy it made the original Flashdance routine seem tame. She sauntered across a gym and used its equipment as props with fluid and pronounced moves. She danced as if her life depended on it, and in a lot ways, it did. In the last decade she endured a sour Star Trak deal and a debut album, VII, which sold 16,000 units in its opening week. This weekend, she released K.T.S.E., the last of G.O.O.D Music’s sweeping summer roll out. After years of being in limbo, this was her moment. But K.T.S.E feels like a showcase of Kanye’s production more than an expansion of Taylor’s 90s-centered sound. What’s more, nothing about her sophomore effort has seemed to be in her control, allowing K.T.S.E to be overshadowed by Kanye’s antics, dense production, and time limit.
The “Fade” video rebranded Teyana Taylor as a sex symbol, giving her the exposure to revitalize her career, eclipsing her efforts as an R&B singer. Her starring role in “Fade” prompted an endless stream of articles questioning who “Who is Teyana Taylor?,” ignoring all mention of her career as a singer. It would’ve been a valid question if Taylor hadn’t told us who she was ten years ago as an ambitious teenager, and again when she released her debut album VII in 2014. She wasn’t new to this. It was a resurrection of the second phase of her career, one that was full-grown. But the moment created an insatiable need for Taylor, which sparked a headlining run at New York Fashion Week, legendary tribute to Lil Kim, and family-friendly reality show. In the anticipation surrounding her sophomore album, K.T.S.E was being heralded as Kanye’s return to R&B rather than Taylor’s return to music, at a huge disservice to the artist herself. Teyana Taylor deserves more than being a footnote to the conversation. She deserves a career that allows her to record more and defend herself less. She deserves to be heard and not just seen. But most importantly, she deserves for her vision to be delivered exactly how she intended it, not how her bosses think it should be received. K.T.S.E does little to establish an identity outside of any of that.
The first time most people were introduced to Teyana Taylor was as a wide-eyed 15-year-old on MTV’s My Super Sweet 16 making extreme demands. She needed to arrive in a Barbie box wearing $700 Nike Dunks. A year after her appearance on the show, as a new signee to Pharrell’s Star Trak label, she released 2008’s “Google Me,” a song she admits was a purely “political decision.” “I cried every time I had to premiere the video,” she said in a 2012 interview with Sway Calloway. “I cried on TRL. I cried at 106 & Park...it just wasn’t me.” Two years later, Taylor released her debut album on G.O.O.D Music. VII is a tribute to traditional R&B as she controls her voice well enough to channel the rasp of Toni Braxton and the whisper of Janet Jackson. She is at home on the 14 tracks, putting her own spin on 90s classics like Biggie’s “Dreams” and Ginuwine’s “None of Your Friend’s Business.” VII is a debut that established her sound as an artist, distancing Taylor from “Google Me.” By this year, she had cultivated a wider audience, had a new role as a wife and mother and was using her newfound sex appeal to her advantage. K.T.S.E was shaping up to be in line with some of R&B’s most liberating albums, like janet and Beyonce. It was primed to be Teyana Taylor’s moment, but it didn’t exactly go that way.
But the album is far from bad. K.T.S.E opens with a booming production, one that conjures the feeling of early Kanye productions similar to his work on The College Dropout. Soul is injected into the production of “Gonna Love Me,” and “Issues/Hold On” where the Delfonics and Billy Stewart assist Taylor’s love-tinged vocals. She’s vulnerable on “Issues,” willing to push through her insecurities to fight for the love she thinks is worth it. “You tell me you love me, but tell me again / I need the reassurance every now and then,” she sings. The album is undoubtedly soulful, but doesn’t feel like an extension of VII. K.T.S.E is the only G.O.O.D Music release that tips over 7 tracks, with Mykki Blanco requesting one thing on “WTP”: “Allow Miss Taylor to sing the blues.” What VII showed was that Taylor’s voice thrives when it’s stripped down to the bare bones, rather than competing against the samples as it does here. Kanye’s production doesn’t really allow her to show her range, and instead throws together 60s and 70s songs that predate her niche. A duet with Ty Dolla $ign, “3Way,” is the only song that seems to fit her natural rhythm. Here, her voice is reminiscent of Brandy, except she’s singing about something we’d never hear from the 90s singer: threesomes. It’s a long cry from VII, where Taylor flirted with imagery of sex, but on K.T.S.E she’s not afraid to take it there.
“Rose in Harlem” avoids all talk of relationships. It’s the most gritty we’ve heard her, channeling a quick-paced flow while never losing her tone. “Ten years in the game / Niggas like, ‘You ain’t hot? You ain’t pop yet?’ / ‘What’s up with you and Ye?,” she sings. It’s a direct hit to the skeptics who have been keeping tabs on her since Star Trak. Except, this isn’t the original version. Earlier this month, Taylor previewed the song on Instagram ending with a sample from Lauryn Hill’s “Lost Ones,” which would’ve probably complemented the interlude Hill was said to have given Taylor. Neither of the elements that would’ve added to Teyana’s indisputable 90s flare to her long-awaited sophomore album made the final cut. When a fan tweets she wanted to hear the original “Rose in Harlem,” Taylor comments “Me too.” Twenty-two minutes doesn’t make up for how long we’ve had to wait to hear her like this. From the late release to its omissions, K.T.S.E doesn’t put Taylor in a position of control in her artistry.
Teyana Taylor had the most to gain from this exhaustive weekly G.O.O.D Music run. She is the only artist in the summer roll out without a rabid fan base. This was the time to establish one. Where PUSHA-T, Kanye, and Nas could release albums and receive the same amount of attention in their sleep, Taylor didn’t have that luxury. Although VII and K.T.S.E are worlds apart, it was naive of me to think she would pick up where she left off in 2014, as she transitioned through marriage and motherhood. It had moments, like the tenderness of “Issues,” and the risque nature of “WTP,” but needed the machine of what the Kanye West name brings: proper marketing and promotion. It didn’t need the spectacle of being the only album of the rollout that missed its deadline by a day. She should get the same accolades for her association to Kanye on the album as she did for appearing in the video—and that’s keeping the same energy. David Dennis Jr. observed for The Undefeated the ways black women were exploited during this rollout (Whitney Houston’s bathroom photo and Kelis’s allegations against Nas.)
For black women in R&B, the industry seems to want to be able to compartmentalize how women should behave. It’s why two benchmark R&B albums made by black women, Janet Jackson and SZA, are centered around control. Teyana Taylor came on the scene with a bright personality, one that has afforded Cardi B an exorbitant amount of success. In R&B you’re only allowed to be loud if you’re an expert on pain, as seen in the careers of Mary J Blige, and the now ex-communicated Keyshia Cole. Last year, The LA Times revealed black women in R&B are still receiving disproportionate attention from women of other races in other genres. “It’s hard for a woman to do anything, but when you’re black you have to fight,” Mary J. Blige said in the interview. It’s Teyana’s time now, and she’s talented enough to control her own narrative.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.