Teyana Taylor’s Music Has Matured, but Has Her Label?

K.T.S.E., the new record from the most prominent female artist on Kanye West–fronted G.O.O.D. Music’s roster, buzzes with promise despite recent controversies stirred up by West, Pusha T, and Nas.

Teyana Taylor performs at the 2018 BET Experience Staples Center concert
Teyana Taylor performs at the 2018 BET Experience Staples Center concert (Ser Baffo / Stringer / Getty)

Ten years ago, Teyana Taylor burst onto the music landscape with a simple edict: “Google Me.” The Harlem-born starlet-in-training had signed with Pharrell Williams’s Star Trak Entertainment a year earlier, at 15, but it was the histrionics of her MTV debut on My Super Sweet 16 that catapulted Taylor into notoriety beyond her native New York. In the 2007 episode, the excitable teenager did not hesitate to share her extravagant vision: “I want a marching band, bring people in here marching, singing ‘Happy birthday, Teyana!’” she told her mother, swinging her arms as she pantomimed the stride of a drumline. “I want a skateboard ramp; I want graffiti artists drawing my face on walls; I want breakdancers, that’s what I want!”

Nearly a decade after the Sweet 16 outburst, it was Teyana’s own dancing that propelled her into the public eye. Then 25, the multi-hyphenate appeared in the hypersensual music video for Kanye West’s “Fade,” which West premiered during the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards. She was hypnotic, gyrating across an empty gym, writhing on both the floor and her then-fiancé, the Herculean Cleveland Cavaliers shooting guard Iman Shumpert. Within hours, countless articles introduced Taylor to unfamiliar audiences.

But the “Fade” music video wasn’t an arrival so much as it was an anointing. In the years preceding Kanye’s cosign on the MTV stage, Taylor had been steadily grinding: In 2012, she signed with West’s G.O.O.D. Music under Def Jam; in 2014, she released VII, her debut studio album; in 2015, she dropped an EP, The Cassette Tape 1994. She appeared on West’s 2010 “Christmas in Harlem” with Cyhi the Prynce; a month earlier, she lent background vocals to West’s tortured My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

The dissonance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy haunts Taylor’s latest release, K.T.S.E., or Keep That Same Energy. The new record is the last in the series of consecutive albums West announced in April. K.T.S.E. follows Ye, West’s solo full-length; Kids See Ghosts, a collaborative project with Kid Cudi; and two West-produced albums, one each from his protégé Pusha T (Daytona) and New York heavyweight Nas (Nasir). Even for Kanye, the workaholic super-producer who infamously locked himself in a room to do five beats a day for three summers, rolling out five albums in five weeks is a lofty goal.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, these efforts faltered as the summer continued. But Taylor’s positioning at the end of the release wave—and her status as the least established of the G.O.O.D. artists—made her uniquely vulnerable to West’s missteps. In the two months that transpired between Kanye’s announcement of Teyana’s album and the belated K.T.S.E. release, the G.O.O.D. Music team sidelined its most prominent female artist not just by neglecting her work, but also through the dizzying maelstrom of its male stars’ antics.

In the lead-up to the Ye release, West bungled the label’s PR at every turn by drawing the ire of myriad audiences: He tweeted a photo of himself wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat, then aligned himself with Donald Trump and his “dragon energy,” then posted screenshots of famous friends attempting to steer him away from the proverbial sunken place; he said that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice.” For his part, Pusha T accepted Kanye’s suggestion to use a garish, $85,000 photo of the late Whitney Houston’s drug-strewn bathroom sink as the cover of Daytona; he also reignited a longstanding feud with Drake, dominating headlines with dispatches from his sojourn into the archives of Aubrey’s alleged indiscretions.

Meanwhile, the vacuous Nasir, Nas’s first album since his 2012 post-divorce record, Life Is Good, neglected to address the fact that his ex-wife, Kelis, had recounted details of Nas’s alleged abuse just weeks prior to the album’s release. Taylor’s K.T.S.E. arrived at the tail end of these missteps, after the G.O.O.D. team had cemented its reputation as a home for artists lazily labeled “problematic.” Her work, like that of countless other female artists, thus became collateral damage in the ongoing circus of masculine misdeeds.

But the record itself, a compact eight-track albumette, buzzes with promise. Taylor’s voice is alternately husky and high-pitched. She lilts over slinky production, belts over the sound of high-powered lasers. Taylor, now the 27-year-old mother of Iman Tayla Shumpert Jr., wife of Iman Shumpert Sr., and proprietor of Junie Bee nail salon, sounds far more self-assured than she has on any prior records. She delves into personal insecurities and emerges confident, allows herself to be vulnerable while remaining steadfast in who she is.

In “Rose in Harlem,” for instance, Taylor traces her struggles emerging from the concrete jungle of uptown Manhattan. On the track, which samples Philadelphia soul group the Stylistics’ “Because I Love You, Girl,” she raps the verses and sings her own hook, emphatically reaching for notes beyond her normal register as she laments the haters she’s dealt with on her road to fame. “It be the ones, the ones you closest to / It be the ones, the ones you trust—them, too,” she sings, the lines a letter to her younger self. “Rose in Harlem” complicates the notion of hometown loyalty and paints a thorny, complex picture of Taylor. She may be Harlem to the bone, but she makes no secret of the cracks therein.

That openness extends to her family, too. On one of the album’s standout tracks, “Issues / Hold On” (produced by West, Plain Pat, Mike Dean, and Boogz), Taylor earnestly addresses Shumpert:

Fighting to keep us together, hope it’s worth a try
You ain’t always been an angel but heaven’s on our side
I got my demons too, I know just how you feel
You can be real with me, that’s why you’re still with me
Can’t hide behind the carats on a diamond ring
I don’t even care if you lie to me
Cause there ain’t much to kiss but me these days
I say I do just to say I don’t
Don’t give me no reason to go through your phone
This is deeper than you and other women, this is daddy issues
This is years putting up with the real time niggas

In breathy, drawn-out pleas, she immediately transitions to the sincere entreaty from the second half of the song’s title: “So hold on, hold on, don’t let me go, hold on, hold on.” The song comes weeks after rumors that Shumpert’s infidelity would lead to the early end of the couple’s VH1 show, Teyana & Iman. Both Shumpert and Taylor have denied the rumors, but “Issues / Hold On” nonetheless functions as both warning and threat. Taylor admits to her fears, leaning into the discomfort rather than presenting the same singularly cocky persona she embodied on VII. Her rawness is bracing, reminiscent of the threads that tied together the similarly mismanaged Top Dawg Entertainment artist SZA’s candid 2017 debut, Ctrl.

Elsewhere on the album, Taylor sings of her husband with tenderness and passion, with the latter sometimes overflowing to an uncomfortable degree. On the West-assisted “Hurry,” a track that could’ve easily been a sultry summer jam, Taylor channels “So Anxious”–era Ginuwine in imploring her husband to race to her and keep his “eyes all on this fatty.” It’s a charming tease of a track, but as Taylor transitions from the second verse to the chorus, a background track of hyperrealistic moans overtakes her voice; the sounds fade eventually, but they last far too long for “Hurry” to ever be played in polite company. It’s a bizarre, disappointing production choice, one that renders the most summer party–friendly song on the album a lascivious spectacle.

“Hurry” is immediately followed by “3Way,” a deeply cringeworthy track about exactly what its title suggests. Taylor begins the song by noting that she’d do “anything for my baby, I’d do some crazy things (yeah) / So whatever he want, he can get that.” Shumpert’s desires are foregrounded throughout the salacious song, which mysteriously fails to account for the artist’s own pleasure (or that of the second woman) in the hypothetical romp it describes in detail. Ty Dolla $ign joins to elaborate on the scene, adding another voice to the chorus in pursuit of masculine pleasure. It’s a perplexing choice from a woman who makes no secret of her own sex drive, an unfortunate reminder that women’s gratification can come second even when women are ostensibly calling the shots.

Luckily, the album closes on the Mykki Blanco–assisted “WTP,” a high-energy club jam that finds Taylor at her cockiest and most domineering, channeling a vivacity that the preceding songs lack. It’s the track most authentic to Taylor’s artistic trajectory, with a mélange of influences including the ballroom scene that birthed countless queer icons. She would do best to weave this verve into all her tracks.

Taylor’s vocals vibrate throughout K.T.S.E., but the album seems to lack the full force of her literal and proverbial voice. Even when she strikes out from behind the cloak of G.O.O.D.’s mismanagement, Taylor seems hampered by the weights her male labelmates—and at times even her husband—have attached to both her music and her public persona. Kanye, Cudi, Pusha, and Nas may be able to transcend the disarray that West wrought upon this lineup of releases, but the stakes are much higher for Taylor, a woman and a less established artist. Kanye and the masculine idols of G.O.O.D. may have obscured her shine thus far, but K.T.S.E. offers a glimpse at the artist Taylor could be if her label let her thrive.