Teyana Taylor is a force.
The Jill-of-all-trades has spent more than a decade reminding us of this. Her debut album, VII, was a confidently sultry collection of smoky, ’90s-evoking R&B; odes to love, lust, personal freedom and vulnerability that proved that she was the artist her devoted following had been proclaiming her to be (for the most devoted, that had been ever since “Google Me” back in 2008). From the beginning, she’d racked up a résumé belying her youth: choreographed for Beyoncé and collaborated with Pharrell and signed with his Star Trak Entertainment; dropped her From a Planet Called Harlem mixtape; handpicked by Kanye when such a thing still carried an air of prestige; and, via excursions into sneaker and fashion design, became one of the most trendsetting young personalities of her generation.
But “Google Me” didn’t even scratch the surface of what she could accomplish musically, and after her exit from Star Trak/Interscope, in 2012 she dropped her second mixtape, The Misunderstanding of Teyana Taylor, a set of ethereal odes to the ’80s and ’90s R&B that shaped her. It was an indicator of what she could do with a little latitude and some shine. She was scoped up by G.O.O.D. Music, dropped the acclaimed VII in 2014 and all parties involved seemed to be in agreement that Teyana Taylor was going to be something very, very special.
So why does it feel like G.O.O.D. Music doesn’t know it?
Taylor’s sophomore album, K.T.S.E. (Keep That Same Energy), is an accomplished evolution for the artist; she moves between genres, tones, moods, and colors with a deftness very few have mastered. One moment, Taylor’s quoting Marvin Sapp for the stirring affirmation of “Never Would Have Made It,” then suddenly she’s vamping it up with vulgar urgency on throbbing album closer “WTP.” It’s so effortless that you can take for granted how remarkably natural she is in virtually any disparate pop medium.
But the album’s rollout this Friday became mired in confusion and controversy. The fifth release on G.O.O.D. Music’s much-ballyhooed summer slate of albums—which has also seen strong releases from Pusha T and the Ye/Kid Cudi side project Kids See Ghosts—K.T.S.E. wasn’t available on streaming services at all on its supposed release date. Scheduled for midnight June 22, the album wasn’t released until Saturday, June 23, amid tweets that Kanye was still tinkering with mixes and initially befuddled postings from Taylor. The bungling led to criticism on social media from fans, and even Azealia Banks, who has sparred with Taylor in recent months, blasted G.O.O.D. Music in the comments on Taylor’s Instagram page:
“Ok not to be that girl but that’s high key misogyny. Kanye really makes me mad how he just always has time to hop skip and run for these white bitches and his niggas but really be treating Teyana like the step child. Like Kanye, this is the only female on your label you had time for trump but you couldn’t figure out how to upload the black girls album on fucking time?”
Of course, Banks’ commentary must always be taken with several grains of salt, but there is a pervasive sense that G.O.O.D. Music has never really maximized Taylor—which is disappointing considering the promise of this union. In 2014, Taylor was prepping for VII’s release and her confidence in her label was still obvious. Having fought her way from Interscope, she’d jumped at what seemed like a fortuitous chance to work with Kanye after expecting to take an indie route.
“By the time I had finally gotten my release that I asked for from my first deal, we were already in talks with Kanye,” she told Noisey in 2014. “Because after I did [Kanye’s] ‘Dark Fantasy,’ he was like, ‘Man, what’s your situation?’ And I was like, ‘Man, I’m currently ready to go independent and get this release from my label.’ So in the midst of that, everything just kind of happened so fast. And you know, I’m not going to front. I really did think that I was going to be an independent artist but I feel like, you know, God had another plan for me. Because just when I was going to be independent is when I received an email from Ye telling me to come listen to his album. So, I was like, clearly this means something.”
Andrea Domanick of Noisey wrote about the chaotic mishandling of Taylor’s K.T.S.E. after the album rollout went awry. “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 judgment 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?”
It most certainly shouldn’t be about Kanye. His contributions as producer aren’t to be dismissed, of course. He drapes Taylor’s seductive sound in the vintage soul samples fans pine for—Billy Stewart, The Delfonics, and The Stylistics. It feels like his classic approach in the most contemporary clothes. But the album also feels like the least Kanye-driven of the G.O.O.D. summer releases thus far. This is a Teyana project, and one that should serve as further affirmation that she has grown into herself musically. But it has also become glaringly obvious that she warranted a bit more attention—beyond West’s antics, G.O.O.D. Music beefs and the hype of the collective rollout—so that the general public could fully appreciate what she’s doing.
After VII and the success of her radio hit “Maybe,” Taylor dropped the EP The Cassette Tape 1994, hit the road with Chris Brown, and embarked on her own “VII Unplugged Tour” in spring 2016. But that fall, she caught the whole world’s attention with the world premiere of Kanye West’s video for “Fade,” a song from his album The Life of Pablo. Taylor was the star of the visual, a powerhouse dance performance that featured her amazing physique, echoes of Flashdance, her husband (NBA player Iman Shumpert), and a lot of gyrating in a gym. That “Fade” video performance was the talk of the 2016 MTV VMAs. She told Vogue that year that it felt like the culmination of all she’d been working toward:
“I was so nervous because it was really a do-or-die moment. I’ve worked so hard and I didn’t know that that moment was going to be that huge because I didn’t have time to mentally prepare. But it was dope that I was able to really sit back and really take in the whole moment. It’s emotional because I’ve been in the industry for so long and I’ve never understood why certain things weren’t happening. And now I feel like my story, everything that I’ve been through, makes this moment so much more special. Though it took so long for this to happen, I don’t feel like it could’ve happened at a better time.”
Her star power was undeniable. It was a major moment that seemed to be wasted when no new music followed. The video won Best Choreography at the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards and at that year’s show, Taylor, wearing an outfit that echoed one Janet Jackson wore when she’d won the award 12 years prior, had “Underrated” emblazoned across the back of her crop top.
One could posit that Taylor’s infrequent releases haven’t helped her case for becoming one of the more recognized stars in music. There are contemporaries—like the aforementioned Banks—who have arguably been just as obscured without the added push of a Kanye West co-sign. But that Ye association has become a bit of a double-edged sword for Teyana Taylor. Their creative chemistry is noteworthy on K.T.S.E., and she’s totally in her pocket, artistically. But that creativity has to also be prioritized—and there’s a circus around her mentor, and sometimes his label, that seems to overshadow her artistry. She’s in an enviable spot in popular music and pop culture—but that nagging feeling that we’re not getting the full scope of her would-be glory is becoming an impossible-to-ignore narrative. And that’s a shame.
Because Teyana Taylor is a force.