Syd: “I don’t care about validation anymore. I know I’m a genius”

With the alt-R&B she pioneered with her group The Internet now firmly mainstream and new album ‘Broken Hearts Club’ imminent, the artist is more self-assured than ever

Syd is at ease. The musician is sitting on the floor of her Los Angeles flat, a month before she turns 30. Backdropped by a grey couch and framed paintings on the walls, she playfully flicks a red lighter between her fingers, waiting for the arrival of Matt Martians, her frequent collaborator and bandmate in the alt-R&B group The Internet. After a tough two years, her sense of relief is palpable.

At the start of the pandemic, Syd went through the painful fallout of the end of a long-term relationship. This confluence of events birthed ‘Broken Hearts Club’, her second solo album and arguably her best work to date. At the time, she had created an album full of love songs packed with optimism and buoyancy. “[When] that love ended, I had to figure out, ‘Do I just scratch the whole project and talk my shit?” she says. “Or do I finish the album and finish it the way that this relationship finished, in a sense, capping it off?”

The eventual result is a 13-track R&B project which dovetails neatly between two end-points of a relationship – of being in and out of love. “When I was making it, there were a lot of people I was playing it for who said, ‘I miss the old Syd. I want you to talk your shit. I want you to flex’ and I was like, ‘I’m just not there right now’,” she says.

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Credit: Matthew Cowen for NME

On her 2017 debut solo album, ‘Fin’, Syd focused on her unwavering self-assuredness and confidence (on the stuttering ‘Shake Em Off’, she dubbed herself a “Young star in the making”) but here, on ‘Broken Hearts Club’, she flits between the most intimate of settings with a lover and stark loneliness, capturing those ineffable visceral moments of intimacy. It is a powerfully vulnerable project that finds her speaking her truth.

And, now, when the rest of the music industry has caught up with her sound – the funk-filled, lackadaisical ‘alternative’ R&B she helped to pioneer with the Internet’s 2011 debut album ‘Purple Naked Ladies’ is now all over the mainstream – Syd has pivoted again. The album is more stripped back than her previous work while being tightly melodic, slinky ’90s R&B piano riffs sitting neatly alongside funky guitar solos underpinned by crisp drums as Syd’s delicate falsetto hovers above the beat. Her voice cracks at certain points to convey the grief and pain she felt. It is gratifyingly hard to categorise into a genre; the experimentation within the production allows her to hone in on a new sound.

“I have a nice apartment. I have all my dream cars. I’m set. I can’t ask for no more”

“Tell me if it’s all too much / ’Cause we don’t really need to rush / I think you could be the one / I think you and me could stunt, yeah” she sings on ‘Right Track’, which features rapper US Smino. As the aforementioned relationship break-up took place during the start of the pandemic, Syd wasn’t afforded an escape which, in turn, allowed her to look inwards. As someone who has spent the last decade firmly in the spotlight due to her peerless talent, the singer was finally happy to take stock.

“It forced me to take a look at myself and ask questions,” she admits. “Questions like, ‘do I like who I am? Do I love who I am?’ Because whenever you get dumped, you naturally ask, ‘What the fuck is wrong with me?’ Because everything was good. So, it forced me to say, ‘…Is there anything wrong with me?’ And nope – there wasn’t. That was nice: to come to that realisation that I wouldn’t change anything about myself.”

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Credit: Matthew Cowen for NME

Sydney Loren Bennett has had a decade most would envy. Coming up in 2010 as part of groundbreaking collective Odd Future, the LA rap group known for causing chaos with their shock-and-awe lyricism and rowdy stage presence, Syd was the only female member in a group of rambunctious teenage boys. Her public presence was faint and gentle which, when placed next to the large personalities like Tyler, The Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Domo Genesis and others, created a solid counterbalance.

Infamously, Syd became a lightning rod for criticism as she was pigeonholed and viewed through the lens of her gender and queerness while the men of Odd Future spouted misogynistic and homophobic lyrics. The public seemed to specifically hold her accountable for the wider group’s behaviour while the men were praised for their lyricism and production.

“It feels like a lifetime ago,” she says after a lengthy pause. “I don’t have any real memories of that time. I was just floating through it. I wasn’t in a good place then and so I don’t really reminisce on those moments.”

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Syd on the cover of NME

Syd, who was one of the first Odd Future members to officially leave the collective in 2016 – one studio album and dozens of mixtapes deep – gained further acclaim as The Internet, a semi-supergroup formed with keyboardist Matt Martians, bassist Patrick Paige II drummer Christopher Smith, and guitarist Steve Lacy.

As the frontperson and one of the writers, producers and DJs for the group, her fingerprints are all over the group’s four-album run, which includes 2015’s Grammy-nominated ‘Ego Death’ and 2018’s acclaimed. The group is still tight-knit and possibly working on new music, having caught up the night before NME sits down to speak with her.

“The Internet is exactly what we want it to be,” she says. “It’s a snapshot of where we are at the time – individually and together. Most of us actually had dinner last night. We do Sunday night wine night, but this is the first time that Matt’s been able to participate because he lives in Georgia.”

“Odd Future? I wasn’t in a good place then and so I don’t reminisce on those moments”

All of these accomplishments feel natural to Syd because music has been a lifelong passion, instilled in her by her Jamaica-based uncle Mikey Bennett, the producer behind Shabba Ranks’ global 1991 dancehall smash-hit ‘Mr. Loverman’. “He was the catalyst for me to get into studio work,” she says. “Visiting Jamaica as a kid and going to this studio and being like, ‘I want one of these. I want to just be able to sit in here, and watch people do stuff and make stuff.’ I had a genuine drive that came from within.”

This is the same passion that led Odd Future to congregate at Syd’s parents’ house to record their early work and build that rabid fanbase. For Syd, though, all of this was a learning curve towards something grander. “My dad refused to pay for me to go to music school because he knew that I was capable of learning it all on my own because his brother did,” she explains. “My parents knew that you could be a musician, and it could be a real career. It definitely allowed us to grow up with open minds.” (Syd’s brother, Travis Bennett, formerly known as Taco, was also part of Odd Future and has since become an actor and writer in his own right.)

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Credit: Matthew Cowen for NME

That freedom has led to a career where she’s collaborated with and worked with artists as varied as Beyoncé, Disclosure, Little Simz, Zayn and Lil Uzi Vert. It also led to her experimenting with her production to a point where 2017’s debut album ‘Fin’ became a high-water mark for her creativity. It was the culmination of over a decade of production, of observing and learning, where her work bent genres to her will, influencing a generation of modern-day contemporaries.

Arguably, Syd’s influence can be directly seen in the rise of her contemporaries such as Summer Walker, H.E.R and Nao, all of whom create the type of music which owes a lot to Syd’s production: boastful hip-hop, sensual R&B, lithe neo-soul that nods to traditional R&B elements to create something new.

“I wasn’t doing it on purpose,” Syd says, laughing off any notion of her being a pioneer. “I honestly had my head down. I was working, paying dues. I had a lot to prove to myself and to others so I was more focused on that than being a role model… All I could hope for is to inspire people.”

“I wasn’t being [an R&B] pioneer on purpose… All I could hope for is to inspire people”

Still, fans expecting more of the same from the buoyant, “old Syd” may be disappointed, a fear that follows her into the release of ‘Broken Hearts Club’. She is keen to reiterate that she is Syd: not a singer or songwriter or producer or rapper, but all of those denominations rolled into one artist.

“The way I view myself – and it goes back to what I wanted to do from the jump – is [as] a producer who would hop on a hook and sing real quick,” she says. “I don’t want to compare myself to the Summer Walkers – I compare myself to Pharrell.” Syd admiringly references N.E.R.D’s 2002 re-released version of the album ‘In Search Of…’, on which producers Pharrell and Chad Hugo used live instruments to combine R&B with funk-rock, inspiring a generation in the process (Tyler, The Creator once dubbed it “the greatest album of all time”). To Syd, it’s the sound of “someone who is just publicly experimenting”.

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Credit: Matthew Cowen for NME

She took that energy after the break-up into the creation of ‘Broken Hearts Club’, before admitting to herself that she needed to pause: “I felt a lot of pressure to bury myself in my work. That was my initial knee-jerk reaction. It didn’t sound good. If anything, it was a mirror and I didn’t like what I saw. I needed to heal first and so I did that.

“I stopped making music altogether. I read a lot of Toni Morrison books. I did a lot of Earthing – standing in the grass barefoot – and reconnecting with myself. I was forced to sit in the sun in my front yard and deal with it. No distractions and no escape. I actually preferred it that way because I knew I didn’t want to let that grief linger for too long. I knew I wanted to grieve that loss and then move on as quickly as possible in a healthy way.”

 “I don’t want to compare myself to the Summer Walkers – I compare myself to Pharrell”

Alongside this, Syd also started regularly seeing a therapist, which led her to see a psychiatrist, something she wishes she had done earlier in life and recommends to anyone who has the means to see one. “I’ve been diagnosed with depression,” she explains. “I was dealing with that a lot back in the day and knowingly dealing with it but also not knowing a healthy way to deal with it. [Therapy] has been a game-changer. It doesn’t change everything, obviously, but it gives you a foundation, at least, to come at life rationally. Therapy helped me get comfortable with psychiatry.”

Syd made such great progress that both her therapist and psychiatrist suggested she take a break. This coincided with a newfound sense of creativity that enabled her to finish off ‘Broken Hearts Club’. The album boasts various contributions from writing-production duo Nicky Davey, (Syd’s frequent collaborators) and Steve Lacy, while rising talent Brandon Shoop sits alongside Grammy-winning acts such as Troy Taylor, G Koop and Darkchild and Kehlani. The collaboration with the latter, ‘Out Loud’, a sensual saccharine tune meant for the most intimate of settings, was a long time coming.

“Kehlani and I have been friends for a long time,” Syd says. “Our birthdays are a day apart, so we’ve always felt this kinship.” They’re “Finsta friends” – private Instagram accounts reserved for close pals – and “talk throughout the week”. The two worked together on the languid 2020 Disclosure track ‘Birthday’, which made them realise that it was the first time they had collaborated. “We were just like, ‘Why haven’t we made more stuff together?’,” she says. “Next thing, we booked the studio for three days and just started messing around. We had a great time.”

NME Cover 2022 Syd
Credit: Matthew Cowen for NME

‘Broken Hearts Club’ is Syd’s last album on Columbia Records. It feels like the closing of a chapter for her, a marker to the end of her 20s. As 30 beckons, she’s looking forward to new ventures. “The next Internet album will also be our last [on Columbia],” she reveals. “I have no idea what’s next. I don’t know. Maybe we’ll create an Internet label. We talked about that – just signing ourselves.”

Syd leans back against the couch and takes a moment to reflect on the last decade. “The best thing is to see where it’s all gotten us now,” she says. “We just did the Smokin Grooves Festival [in LA] and Earl [Sweatshirt] was there backstage, just hanging out. We hung out all day. It was just dope. Like, we’re all grown. He has a kid now. It’s crazy.”

She pauses. “I don’t know… I have a nice apartment. I have all my dream cars. This is what I expected my 20s to be like, but everything’s set as I hit 30. I’m set. I don’t have to work unless I want to and my mom doesn’t have to work. I can’t ask for no more.”

Does she still seek the validation of others? To be recognised for her talents? Does she feel valued by the industry? Syd scoffs. “I don’t think I care anymore,” she says. “I know I’m a genius.”

Syd’s ‘Broken Hearts Club’ is out April 8