Stars are born quite differently these days. Here’s one new way: imagine you’re in a molten-hot hip-hop collective, the sole woman among a clot of bratty young bucks known as Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. You’re Syd tha Kyd, AKA Sydney Bennett, the brooding DJ/producer at the back of the pack – not merely the lone female, but queer too, which makes the group’s homophobic outbursts all the more galling. Your uncle is a Jamaican reggae producer who co-wrote Mr Loverman for Shabba Ranks, so music runs deep.
Odd Future eat up a lot of oxygen in the late 00s and early 10s. The most attention-seeking alpha male, Tyler, the Creator, looks destined to do a Beyoncé. Then a truly extraordinary thing happens: Tyler’s ascent stalls. And three far greater talents spin off OFWGKTA: first, the magnificent soul man Frank Ocean, who turns out not to be straight either. Next, re-enter rapper Earl Sweatshirt, who makes good on the mythical status he acquires in exile at reform school in Samoa.
Finally, and perhaps most slinkily of all, the planets align for Syd. No longer a precocious stripling, she is now the force at the centre of a collective known as the Internet. It’s a perverse choice of name, given the requirements of search engine optimisation, but apt enough for a sprawling and eclectic ensemble of musicians whose lineup contracts and expands. Currently, they are five: Bennett, fellow producer and keyboard player Matt Martians, guitarist Steve Lacy, rapping bassist Patrick Paige II and drummer Christopher Smith. Listening to Ego Death, this lineup’s last album, and Hive Mind, their new one, this Internet feels like a configuration where the jams flow intuitively.
Bennett hasn’t yet become a household name like Ocean, but going obviously supernova is, perhaps, not her style. Everything she does is gradual, off-centre, impressionistic. The Internet’s understated setup has increased in traction across three incrementally more accomplished albums, and one more electronic, trap-laden Bennett solo outing, Fin (2017). All deal with chemistry and lust, and throughout, Bennett’s breathy vocals bring to mind an Aaliyah or Janet Jackson for the 21st century. Unexpectedly, she rapped on Fin: another facet to her shine.
Now, the year after most of the Internet’s members issued solo projects, Hive Mind – their mainstream-facing fourth outing – offers up another set of come-hither sounds whose confidence has taken another leap. The Internet’s appetite for good times – and for funk – is increasing. If they are approaching the mainstream, it’s not entirely at the cost of their feather-light, barely there writing style. The horizontal aspect of the Internet’s songs endures on Hive Mind: theirs is a funk that doesn’t exactly dance on podiums. This is a breakout album that never thrusts itself into the limelight.
Still: it’s getting much easier to explain the Internet to those who find the outfit’s stealthy immanence unmemorable. Roll (Burbank Funk) is one of their punchiest tracks yet, with wunderkind guitarist Lacy taking a lead vocal, and rhythms to the fore. Bennett is there, in the backing vocals and the smiling swagger; the video finds the Internet in retro finery, suggesting a kitsch-free Groove Is in the Heart for much hazier, more ill-defined times.
The Internet are clearly very good, but more than that, they have bided their influential time. When Bennett and her original copilot Martians (an Atlantan whose brother used to be Outkast’s A&R) released their debut, Purple Naked Ladies, in 2011, albums of spacey, narcotised soul were not what Odd Future fans wanted from a Syd side project. But the wider zeitgeist has gradually rolled round to the Internet’s unshowy, effortless, jazz-inflected grooves and nonchalant attitude to queerness. Their last album – 2015’s Ego Death – featured fellow traveller Janelle Monáe and won a Grammy nomination.
Another funked-up Hive Mind turn, La Di Da, sounds hugely like a Neptunes production – an influence Bennett and Martians have acknowledged since the early days of the Internet, and before: many of Odd Future, not least Tyler, were also Pharrell Williams fans. The more you look for Williams and Chad Hugo in the Internet, the more you will find them: a track here called Next Time/Humble Pie boasts the kind of mouth-popping beat that the Neptunes used to great effect on Snoop Dogg’s classic Drop It Like It’s Hot (2004). In the lyrics, Bennett is contemplating making a move on a girl – pretty much the producer’s default state throughout a great deal of her oeuvre. Mood is another tune that finds Bennett nervously meeting a girl. “My crib is close, I just cleaned,” this very matter-of-fact writer reveals, “I text my bros/ They wish me luck.”
Things are not always what they seem in the Internet. Bennett’s sultry coo is permanently set to chill; it’s tasked with handling everything from chaste flirting – “Do you wanna be my girl?” wonders the sweet, retro throwback that is Wanna Be – to bitter recrimination. One unlikely album standout, Look What U Started, is one of her angrier songs. “You’re gonna get it on your judgement day,” it goes – but in Bennett’s mouth, it sounds like a classic of dialled-down 90s friskiness.
Bravo is yet another opportunity for this idiosyncratic band to wrongfoot their listener’s assumptions. The beat’s opening bin-lid lub-dub means it’s hard to predict where Paige’s ultra-melodic bassline and Bennett’s gauzy vocal will land; when they do, it takes your ear a while to adjust to the count.
Despite a neo-soul bent that recalls Erykah Badu, Bennett doesn’t do statements, much less politics. But Hive Mind has one song of consolation that speaks volumes. It Gets Better (With Time) finds Bennett’s super-sweet higher register urging a troubled lover or friend to cheer up. “I just hope you know that it gets better with time,” she reassures, and her Zen state is pristine. It Gets Better is, of course, the name of a US LGBT youth organisation.
Counterintuitively, the Internet sound as though they’ve been bolstered rather than diminished by their solo projects. They are in the almost unprecedented position of being a spin-off band set to spin off more stars. Lacy, who turned 20 in May, had a busy 2017, earning a producer credit on Kendrick Lamar’s masterpiece Damn and releasing his own debut EP, Steve Lacy’s Demo. You can see him wearing yellow in the Bennett-directed video for Come Over, the standout single for Hive Mind. Hilariously, Lacy – whose guitar licks channel Prince – is lambasted for playing “piercing-ass solos and shit” by bassist Paige, whose love interest is trying to meditate. “I can turn you on/ With my dirty mind,” coos Bennett to her inamorata, not too far off Prince herself.
Feel Good, Ego Death, Hive Mind: the Internet’s titles seem to be designed to distance this more equal setup from the less democratic experience of Bennett and Martians’ Odd Future years. Many excellent bands are dictatorships; the payoff here is that, on the Internet, democracy works.