Depending on who you ask, and with variables ranging from age and race to digital savvy, the internet has been “broken” several times in the past decade. For millions, Beyoncé’s surprise visual album drop was one such moment, dominating news cycles and feeds for days. Others will count Kim Kardashian’s Paper magazine cover shoot, most likely because the publication self-proclaimed it had broken the internet and ran an entire campaign around the concept. Then there was Rihanna’s Fenty Beauty make-up drop, an earthquake-sized contender that forever shifted how the beauty industry marketed itself towards Black women. But to truly break the internet, the guest of honor needs to be someone absolutely no one was paying attention to. Someone who existed close enough to the fringes of celebrity culture to be a familiar face, but not so near that they were known simply by a name and nothing else.
It had to be someone whose action so profoundly caught the world by surprise, they would need a reintroduction, a re-acknowledgment, and a belated appreciation of their talents. In the past decade, I’d argue that only one person has truly broken the internet: Teyana Taylor.
On September 6, 2016, it seemed like all the internet collective could talk about that day was the scantily clad dancer in Kanye West’s video for his single “Fade.” With her lithe, explosive movements, impossibly cut muscle tone, and hip-hop-driven, Afro-fusion choreography, Taylor ripped the carpet from under the feet of artists and fans affixed to popular music. While magazine covers, newly found fans, talk show hosts, and music insiders asked, “Where had she come from?” all I could think was, “Finally.” After over a decade in the entertainment industry, critics, consumers, and creators were finally focusing on Taylor’s talents.
Taylor’s third and most assertive album, aptly titled The Album, resulted in a fury of appreciation from fans across social media. From the first look, it’s a jaw-dropper, with a cover image that recalls Grace Jones-level ferocity, and guests Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Missy Elliot, among others. It’s Taylor’s life trajectory in audio format, as she came of age hearing the assured independence of Hill and the droll and bite of Badu, while also reveling in Missy’s avant-garde universe. Split into five parts (Studios A, L, B, U, and M) and 23 tracks, The Album is a continuation of the pioneering legacy of the giants who’ve held Taylor up, while also offering up her own prodigious artistry next to names who were idols until they became peers. It’s the kind of elevation and growth that’s a testament to Taylor’s inimitable, and for a while, undervalued talent.
Taylor is a dancer’s musician—so much so that the album is made for geometric isolations, slow winds, and two-steps. There’s a sense of freedom and dimension in her movements that carry the light touch of, say, Jody Watley and the unmistakable intricacy and athleticism of both Jacksons. So much of Black women’s physicality, beauty, and strength is constantly reduced to racist hyperbole, but watching Taylor own a stage and every corner of the frame is to see a recalibration of what it means to be active and agile in a feminine, Black body. This is Taylor at her most seductive, taking notes from the sexy swagger of Lil’ Kim, one of the very first to make desire and sensuality front and center for Black women in hip-hop. The album cut “Morning,” meanwhile, is template Janet Jackson calling fans up on stage to give a lap dance.
Other standouts on The Album include the candid and perennially hopeful “Come Back to Me,” featuring Rick Ross, with an assist from Taylor’s firstborn, Junie. “Lowkey” is a seamless match with Badu; and “Let’s Build,” though instrumentally sparse, is lyrically heavy, giving room and resting space to the pleas for time, patience, and partnership. Here, Taylor and Quavo work well together, balancing on the same frequency, but she does a great job being a conductor and lead soloist. Somewhere, someone right now is listening to “Concrete” as though the song was written specifically for their current relationship “Gaslightin’ my emotions/Somehow you got the notion/A woman’s better broken/But nigga don’t provoke me.”
Taylor, a descendant of Harlem’s inescapable creative legacy, makes art that’s been shaped by the grit and drive found in those raised in the home of a renaissance. At the 2016 Vh1 Hip Hop Honors, she paid homage to Lil’ Kim in a performance that was equal parts doppelgänger and star-in-the-making. Teyana & Iman, her Vh1 reality show, was a New Edition song come to life with all the romance and playfulness of a ’90s kind of love. She has a chameleon-like ability to simultaneously blend in and stand apart. But it’s this skill that has made her musical journey both frustrating and revelatory.
Because while her talent is undeniable, often it has been placed alongside similar but lesser artists, even when it was apparent that Taylor could soar to greater heights than those she was placed alongside, including her G.O.O.D Music labelmates. Her 2018 album, K.T.S.E, was a fiery, succinct, and layered piece of work that was overshadowed by a poor release cycle, which saw the most multi-talented artist on Kanye West’s label placed on the back burner.
Like a woman coming into her own, with the privilege of hindsight and the promise of maturity, The Album has moments of hesitation and uncertainty. It falters towards the end with tracks like “Still,” “Friends” and “Ever, Ever” sounding like recycled versions of the same song. It loses its flow when it tries to both celebrate new love and simultaneously remember past wrongs. On an album, this leads to confusion, and for listeners, it’s a reminder that you can’t truly enjoy your present if you keep holding onto the resentments of a less cautious you. “How You Want it? (HYWI),” featuring King Combs (son of Sean Combs), feels like a Bad Boy reunion and, although fun, it’s not really exciting for an artist who can hold an album without the use of throwbacks.
For where Taylor is in her life, as an artist who also happens to be a mother and wife, The Album is an accomplishment and tangible proof for Black women in music whose presence seems to rest on stretches that are fleeting, or where their look, sound, and inventiveness are distilled and then portioned out for white pop stars to imitate. Such persistent erasure means success looks different for an artist like Taylor. As great as the belated critical adulation is, it’s the ability to create in a treacherous industry that is a mark of victory. Her success is in the need to be seen and understood by those whose legacies have shaped her own.
Tarisai Ngangura is a journalist and photographer documenting black lives across the globe. Find her on Twitter @FungaiSJ.