As a rule, listening parties suck. At best, they’re an occasion to hobnob with industry folks and sip on some free drinks while listening to a record maybe 48 hours before everyone else can. More often, though, it’s you and an artist’s team politely bobbing your heads in a studio lounge while said artist self-hypes, and a waiter offers you your twelfth lobster ball, because no one is really sure what else to do.
Of course, given G.O.O.D.’s track record with album deadlines this summer—releases inching ever out of grasp, like a dollar on a string—a listening party for one of their artists does offer what might actually be a worthwhile heads up. And with underdog signee Teyana Taylor, the build up to her long-awaited, Kanye-produced album Keep That Same Energy has been particularly enceinte: She's the only female artist amongst Ye's much-hyped septet of forthcoming G.O.O.D. releases (none of which have been very good so far), and faces an uphill battle against an overlooked 2014 debut, dismissal for her video vixen come up, and the drama of the men who run her label. So while she may not be G.O.O.D.'s best-known artist, she's the one with the most to gain for both herself, and the label.
So this is how I find myself on the longest day of the year outside an anonymous, doorless recording studio in North Hollywood, heat rippling off the industrial stucco expanse of Vineland Blvd., with no one else in sight. This is not the glamorous Universal lot listening party that will be live streamed with the Kardashian-Wests in a few hours, but one promised to be more “intimate” and “exclusive,” at the spot where Teyana recorded, and is maybe still recording, the album.
I worry we’ve missed it, or maybe landed at the wrong address; the location was billed as “No Name” studios, which is also the name of a chic private venue across town host to many a’ listening party. Because of this mix up, I'm told everything’s gotten a bit confusing and is, both fittingly and mercifully, running behind. But we are indeed at the right place, the publicist assures me via text, someone is coming out to get us.
In fact, it hasn’t even started yet. Alongside a silver MacLaren in the parking lot, a frantic guy on a cell phone says something about having “the wrong masters,” though it’s unclear if he’s referring to Teyana’s. We head inside, where Teyana is finishing up an intro at the center of the room. In a green sweatshirt and jeans, she’s arguably outshined by her little daughter, who’s running around in head-to-toe, highlighter-hued Gucci.
The lights dim, and alongside a behind-the-scenes video cut of Teyana performing, Teyana in the studio, Teyana as a mom, Teyana arching that back, glistening in sweat, it begins. The first track, which I think is called “Young Love,” or maybe “A Rose in Harlem,” for its sampled intro, is good. It’s really good, a slow-burning cut of old school New York R&B that opens with lyrics that set the stage for both the album, and arguably Teyana’s long-muted voice about her place in this game:
“It be the ones who say they ride for you / It be the ones, the ones you love, them too / It be the ones who swear they real, not true / It be them ones, It be them ones / Don’t get caught up.”
The room is filled largely with squad and stans, sporting a uniform of Keep That Same Energy T-shirts, and the polite head bobbing begins. I crane over them to watch Teyana do her thing, swerving, maybe a little shyly, as two cameramen and a photographer hover around her and at us, breaking the fourth wall of this intimate, low-key affair. I realize my sunglasses are still on, but with a lens in my direction, I opt to leave them there. I try to look like I’m having fun, even though I can’t see shit, even though I keep accidentally elbowing strangers and spill my drink a little in an awkward, dutiful attempt to dance and stand at attention at the same time.
The second song is also good; better, even. My friend and I look at each other with raised eyebrows and nod—this might be the album’s banger. But we’re still skeptical amidst the crowd’s stiff grooving, a little too emphatic for the thus-far laid back tempos.
Then, another song or two in, something magic happens. A beat drops carrying Teyana’s vocals, which aren’t rap-sung, so much as a deft glide between the two, like a chef alternating knives as she preps a meal. The rote movements pause and people begin turning to each other, as if to say, Damn, this is actually great. My friend and I look at each other again—wait, no, maybe this one is the banger.
And that’s what happens, song after song. She serves us R&B; she serves rap and pop. There’s a Push feature. There is one hell of a house track, which is around when I throw off the sunglasses, put my drink down, and really start dancing, elbowed strangers be damned.
On the projector footage, Teyana appears as chameleonic as she sounds. There’s “Fade” cover girl Teyana, writhing and making us sweat; there’s Teyana with short hair in cat-eye shades and baggie jeans, the analog to the punch and flow piping through the speakers; there’s Teyana with her daughter in the studio, showing her the mic and mixing board. Lane crossing, particularly for a breaching artist, and even more so for one who is a woman of color, is a risk; a lot of the time, especially in a pop world gambit, it can feel like pandering, or something unfocused and watered down.
But on KTSE, it feels like Teyana. To move through styles and mediums with a cohesive fingerprint is what defines artistry from entertainment. It’s not costuming or posturing. Her aesthetic presentations and sonic breadth amount to a greater whole, something you can’t put your finger on, because, maybe, finally, we’re getting the woman in control.
The video cuts to Kanye writing track names on a whiteboard, erasing them, writing them again. One says “Pussy,” and as the album goes on, there are no fewer than three songs that could fit the bill (one, in retrospect, is more about a threesome).
The speakers cut briefly before the next track begins with an explicit sample from Eddie Murphy’s ’92 rom-com Boomerang (coincidentally, the same lines used in the intro to Iggy Azalea’s “Pu$$y”). OK, yeah, this one is definitely the “pussy” song. “I want you to fuck me,” she sings on the opening lyrics, words poured like honey over a rhythm section sampled from dripping water.
It's hard not to blush throughout the entire listening, or shift as her daughter and another little girl twirl hand-in-hand to the beat. “That one’s for grown folks,” Teyana giggles a little after the threesome track. KTSE isn’t just about sex or sex appeal—it's equally introspective, and idiosyncratic—but it sounds and feels like sex in the summertime. And like all things sexy, underneath it’s really about power—defiant in its vulnerability, its desire, its control.
“It’s real music. It’s not disposable,” someone says as the last track wraps up.
“Nobody wanna hear that album,” Teyana responds.
Around 7:30, we stumble back out into the harsh solstice sunlight of the parking lot. “I need a drink,” my friend says. It’s that kind of record. Sure, a couple tracks are maybe good and not great, but there really didn’t seem to be any weak spots, no zone-out, check-your-texts moments. Part of that is because the album is only seven tracks—it’s lean as hell, coherent, and satisfying. But more of it, I think, is because Teyana can’t afford to have any weak spots.
Women operating in R&B are expected to be soft, gentle, enticing; they’re expected to rest comfortably in the confines of a low-pressure tempo and patriarchal deference. On KTSE— on this first listen, anyway—Teyana redefines it all on her terms. Sure, she’s the intoxicating dancer, but she’s also the woman cast in the shadow, last in line, of G.O.O.D.’s hip-hop heavyweights; she’s known what she’s up against, the expectation to prove herself as more than a commodified star of someone else's art, and against the assorted political and cultural elephants in the room. On her album, on a livestream, or in a nameless studio in the Valley, the boldest thing she can do is throw down a complete, and unflinching, picture of herself: A mother, a dancer, a rapper, a singer, a lover, a girl from Harlem working twice as hard just to be seen.
Which is why it was so disheartening to wake up this morning and see that the damn album hadn’t dropped yet. Instead, we got photos of Kim from the livestream, and Teyana passive aggressively retweeting fans asking where the album is, while Kanye’s still supposedly “finishing it on the plane” or something, like a writer too precious with a draft. The narrative around Teyana and KTSE is so frustrating because it remains centered on the men around her—you didn’t hear about the listening party I went to, because Kanye wasn’t there—as if the album can't be good until Kanye's signed off on it, or that Teyana lacks the judgement or artistry to do so herself. We’re hungry to hear the album, to know if it’s good, but how much of that is in context of Kanye and his return? How much of that is really about Kanye?
For the duration of her career, it feels like G.O.O.D. has treated Teyana like an afterthought. She's tokenized. Kanye can put out a slapdash album to great philosophical fanfare; meanwhile, Teyana seems to be sitting around waiting for permission to release her own album—an album that great because of a grit and spirit that cannot be crafted for her—and she’s scrutinized all the more closely for it.
But none of that really seems to faze her. She introduced the last track as a clap back against all the “fucked up shit and hate” around her, us, everyone right now. It was a celebratory, thumping number, an imperative with a defiantly joyous chorus of “Love is the new money.” And that grace, that trumping of the rules she’s expected to operate by, might be the most remarkable thing about all of this. Energy, or least whatever version of it was experienced in that small room last night, isn’t about convincing people to get on the bandwagon; nor is it response to the haters, or proof against them. It just floats, right up and on past them.
“Y’all could’ve just not showed up,” she says as we leave. “And I woulda told you—keep that same energy.”
Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast editor. Follow her on Twitter.