The Internet's Mastery of Sound: "Ego Death"
by Noah Adaikkalam
The Internet’s Ego Death is one of the best Soul and R&B albums to come out in the last five years. I had not listened too in depth to this record until a few weeks ago. I miss home and Ego Death has a very specific tie to afternoons spent on breaks in UCLA dorm rooms in between trips to Santa Monica and brownie sundaes at De Neve with friends who I don’t see nearly enough. The beautifully stitched-together album, Steve Lacy, Matt Martian, and Syd outdoing themselves in terms of lyrical and sonic composition as well as refining their sound in modern R&B, takes me back.
The album is not afraid to stick to one sound and master it by stretching and pulling it in every way possible, both on their own and with the help of Kaytranada and The Highlights, some of the featured producers. The album flexes between heavy and light, some songs generating dancing and smiles, other songs (sometimes the second half of those same songs) putting you in the nostalgia of being with the person that ruined you. It’s human, far more human than the music that surrounds it, and loves the contradictions of heartbreak, which it musically embodies.
The album opens big with “Get Away”. The song brings bass and synths alike, pushing the reverb into every corner it can. Syd’s deep vocals hold onto the sound, guitar, and piano riffs trading back and forth, before releasing and allowing the chorus to come through. She’s singing about getting away, making believe, searching for company. This song lays the sonic groundwork for the rest of the album: prominent bass sounds, mostly credited to Matt Martian’s synths, their bread and butter, and lyrics marinated in heartbreak.
“Gabby” and “Under Control” take the same sound and twist it ever so slightly. Gabby, holding onto the base, gets more lyrical and features Janelle Monáe singing along with Syd. The two voices give the song a lighter, more angelic feeling, lifting you from the basement of the last song and giving you a dope bass bridge that clears the airspace for Syd and Monáe to take absolute control of the song. When Syd and Monáe let up, we hear Steve Lacy’s influence come through. Joining the band that year, his repeating four chords play all over the rest of the song, fading in and out of focus, around Syd, the bass, and the keys; slowing down, speeding up, his guitar and bass distinguishing itself as the most versatile part of the album. The last minute of the song opens up for him, the lyrics stopping, keys and drums taking a backseat, which allows Lacy to solo the song out. His plays simple notes and chords, sounding effortless, crisp, and laid back.
“Go with It” and “Just Sayin/I Tried” play a funkier tune. “Go with It” opens with a hype, loud, fast verse from Chicago-native Vic Mensa that offers some needed sound diversity; a new voice, a new pace, a different sound. Forty-five seconds in, Syd snatches back the flow, and keeps it for the rest of the song and into the second half “Just Sayin/I Tried”. The lyrics and baseline dominate these songs, a funk sound moving parallel to lyrics about heartbreak. The two songs speak to each other, “Go with It” begging the girl (an ex or rebound, it’s all the same) to let go, and just Go with It. But she doesn’t. And “Just Sayin/I Tried” reveals what who it’s really about: the ex. Syd falls completely into her feelings, “Don’t be calling on my phone no more, please/ you fucked up/ Sober, peace/ you fucked up/ I don’t love you know more.” She repeats the mantra, “You fucked up,” to herself for the entire song. This song is made so great by Steve Lacy’s baseline, not taking the spotlight, but rather wedging its way into the aesthetic of the song so you don’t realize how important it is unless you’ve listened to it over and over.
“Just Sayin” suddenly shifts into “I tried.” This is my favorite track on the record. Lacy switches back onto the guitar, and it opens with just him and Syd; Steve rotating between four and three-chord sets, her singing over his chords about letters from old flames. The entire record freezes to live out this one moment. Syd taking a softer, nostalgic stance, but just as pessimistic, “Maybe one day we’ll find common ground / when the ocean is gold and the pigs will fly / maybe when the sky starts falling.” It’s the authenticity and transparency, that make me love this song, clearing the smoke and letting us see really how hard this loss hit.
The album shifts tones on “For the World,” leading into “Girl,” and the records biggest hit: “Special Affair.” “For the World”, featuring James Fauntleroy, the genius producer responsible for the forty second Frank Ocean track “Fertilizer,” acts as a solid transition into the second half of the album. Syd and James sing around, Matt Martian pulls his weight as usual, but the simplicity of this track allows you to appreciate them as Lacy sits this one out. Next, Matt passes the soundboard to Kaytranada, and the Haitian-Canadian producer dominates the atmosphere of “Girl”. It’s the most futuristic sound on the record, Kaytranada’s signature effect. It sounds like it was produced on a space station, a foundational baseline that lets synths bend and slide all around them and an ominous string of eighth notes that contrasts the stretched out primary sounds.
Then “Special Affair,” the Martian and Lacy combo piece, hits like the apex it is. Lacy’s baseline dominates the track, Syd’s light vocals go higher than usual to balance. Martian plays the in-between sampling, deep whispers, bongos, trap snares, evil laughs, and holding down the drums. Syd pulls the heartbreak from the entirety of the record and sculpts it into seduction; it is intoxicating. This masterpiece wraps up in three minutes.
“Something’s Missing” and “Partners in Crime Part Three” give you a steady decline in energy from “Special Affair.” “Something’s Missing” is more instrument focused, Syd’s lyrics pushing off affection “Don’t get caught up, lovin me / girl I’m no good for you” and then self-reflective “I just think I am way too young, to fall in love”, offering more of that authentic introspection. “Partners in Crime Part Three” continues the thought, wishing that there was more time, more space, for her and her girl to run off together, but realizing there isn’t. These songs driving home the heartbreak we lost in the seduction of Special Affair. Steve and Matt do a great job of communicating the story through melancholy basslines and synths.
And then the album sounds like it is going to end slowly on “Penthouse Cloud,” another Lacy- Martian combo, this time featuring “The Highlights.” Lacy and Patrick Paige II, the Internet’s main and original bass player, come together for all the guitar and bass on the song, giving it a duality not formally presented before on this album. The track is the most atmospheric by far, Syd singing almost exclusively in falsetto over note-by-note bass lines, ominous guitar riffs, and minimalist drums that root the song down with as little effort as possible. She sings to God, asking why, why people are being shot in the streets, why the world is turning to war and he is only watching from his “Penthouse Cloud” – claiming that “If this is what you want then I’ll fight ‘til the smoke-filled skies make the day turn night” and acknowledging maybe the end is simply their own “paradise in the sky.” It shoulders the melancholy themes of the previous two songs and projects them into the focus of this track. From lyrics to instruments, Penthouse Cloud embodies the tragedy we live in through a jazzy, beautiful composition. It gives us a brief recess from the heartbreak that started the album, realizing that there are more important games to play.
The last seven minutes of the record are given to a two-piece song “Palace/Curse.” “Palace” is upbeat, a bit of a tough transition from “Penthouse Cloud.” Tyler, the Creator MC’s the track. He does some back and forth with the listener, talks to Syd, and compliments the track before introducing the second half, “Curse.” This is Steve Lacy’s signing-off piece, his strings dominating the song, singing backup vocals with shakers and drums. Syd sings the chorus, and climbs up and down across the entire piece, singing a much more classical love song, reminiscing, wishing, wanting. And the song sings itself out, circling around the same lyrical and musical themes before coming to a soft rest amidst an emerging keys solo that leads the track into silence. Finally, a voicemail by Jameel "KiNTaRO" Bruner (the keyboard player) plays. It is his tribute to the group, foreshadowing him leaving the group after the album dropped, letting them know that no matter what, they’re all family.