Of all the artists part of the Surgical Summer projects (or Wyoming Recordings, whatever name is being used to describe them), the one that stood out as almost seeming out of place was Teyana Taylor. While she has been known as a musician and a person involved in the music industry in general (due to her appearance in various projects as a vocalist, but also in roles for music videos), she is definitely the least known and established among the five artists at the center of these album releases, given that she has only released one studio album, two mixtapes, and one EP. Additionally, she is the only one of the five to not be a rapper (even though Kid Cudi is known to sing and play around with rock from time to time), and the only woman to head up a project even though other women do have roles, most notably 070 Shake who contributed the long outro to “Ghost Town” and various smaller vocal parts to various other tracks. However, like most of the others, it had been a long time since Teyana Taylor last released an album (three years since her The Cassette Tape 1994 EP, and four years since her last studio album VII), so it was a bit of a mystery what K.T.S.E., which is an abbreviation of “Keep the Same Energy,” would sound like.
The answer: a soulful R&B album much in the vein of something like Beyonce’s self-titled album and the sample-heavy material that has dominated much of these Wyoming session recordings. Thematically, the album is about romance, relationships, and love, not exactly roads untraveled, though I mentioned Beyonce’s self-titled album because I was frequently reminded of that album and its raw, almost brutal, honestly about her feelings and sexuality, even the uglier parts of both that might make the faint of heart uncomfortable. This album does not go that deep into things, but Teyana puts a lot of heart into these songs, which comes across in almost every situation. Nothing on K.T.S.E. all that revelatory or groundbreaking, but it stands as just a solid release from an artist who sounds like they have crafted an excellent release. No doubt Kanye West had a lot to do with the musical production here (which is possibly the most lush of any of the five albums other than maybe Kids See Ghosts, and I would say this is on par with that at least), but the vocals are all Teyana and she delivers. Lyrically, this album works with a lot of typical fare, but shines because it puts real energy and force behind what is being said. It has its flaws, but it ultimately is quality enough to rise above the regular fare of sexually charged R&B.
Immediately, K.T.S.E. hits hard with the short but powerful “No Manners.” The production is limited here, with the instrumentation being little more than the strings and Teyana. This song introduces the album exactly how it needed to be introduced: dramatically with lots of sharp and flat notes to characterize what is going on, provide that extra bit of emotion while standing within a recognizable structure. This all builds to a refrain that sets the stage for what is to come as Teyana sings, in a relatively dry tone, “I got a man, but ain’t got no manner.” The sample feels only slightly out-of-place, like it has been adjusted just a bit too low, but it is the one flaw in an otherwise impeccable intro. Though the second track, “Gonna Love Me,” quickly redeems even this small flaw by having a sweet and perfectly pitched sample set to a vocal performance that matches it. Nothing feels out of place here, and instead what we see is a rather touching song about dealing with troubles in a relationship. The sentiment of Teyana hits right on the mark here, with lines like “I’m sorry if I made you feel less than who you are/A little insecure, oh, you’s a shining star” not be just empty words but feel like they come from something very real within Teyana.
In a way, these first two songs demonstrate something else about this album that the third song “Issues/Hold Tight” does even more intensely: K.T.S.E. might not have been written solely or even mostly by Teyana herself, but it comes across as distinctly personal throughout. This song mentions more problems of being able to love someone when damaged, with the lines, “Love ain’t a game full of X’s and O’s/But I done been played before, I played it safe before,” standing quite starkly as an example of the moving lyrics here. Unfortunately, as good as these first three tracks are, the album meanders in the middle with attempts at sexual tracks that are ultimately self-deflating. “Hurry” is probably the worse of the two, with Teyana’s deliver coming across as disingenuous for the first time of the record. The tone of the track is also far too trite, ultimately lacking the sort of moving melodies and lyrics that made the previous three songs compelling. It is not simply because the song is less serious and less intense, and a lot of the problems in this song and the next, “3 Way,” have to do with Teyana at all. “3Way,” despite some potentially dubious claims from the lyrics (they largely play up the titular act as though it is some kind of incredible romantic gesture, which I am not sure I am personally willing to back up, though that is my opinion and has no on the quality of the song itself) is musically compelling with very intimate expressions that are granted more weight thanks to the lower-key of the music. What becomes problematic is the rapper features on the song which serve to derail Teyana’s influence her. In a lot of ways, they make the songs which should have been very personal to Teyana largely leave this perspective. With how much this album and Teyana’s delivery makes the songs ring as though they are personal to her, Kanye West’s and Ty Dolla $ign’s feel like distractions, and banal ones at that.
However, the album rebounds strongly with “Rose in Harlem,” the most socially-conscious song on the album and the one that immediately brought to mind the tracks “Ghost Town” from Ye and “Adam and Eve” from Nasir, both of which were among the best on their respective albums. True to form, “Rose in Harlem” is a highlight, with yet another immaculately utilized sample repeating “A rose in Harlem” with a throbbing bass added in for extra effect (and affect, for that matter). The storytelling is rather typical, but still works thanks to Teyana’s convincing delivery. Regardless, the grandest moment come late as Teyana sings the refrain, “It be the ones who say they ride for you/It be the ones, the ones you love, them too/It be the ones who swear they real, not true/It be them ones, It be them ones/Don’t get caught up.” Teyana might be young, but these statements feel very lived in. In fact, the lyrics of being hurt and needing to heal from earlier tracks serve to make this sentiment even stronger.
The second to last song, “Never Would Have Made It” is no highlight from the album, but is high quality none the less. The sentiment is nice and pleasant, and it fits in with the direction of the album. The only issue I had was that it is not very memorable overall. Finally, the album concludes with the very brash and directly sexual “WTP.” The title is an abbreviation for “work that p—-,” which is a good indication of what to expect, especially since this is repeated throughout the song many times through a sample from a song of the same name. Strangely enough, the backing instrumentals and production give the song an almost industrial dance feel, with percussion throughout that is rather abrasive. However, this song is an example of the sort of overt sexuality that was attempted on “Hurry” and “3Way,” but does this in an extremely effective way. In a way, I actually was reminded of 80’s hip hop tracks like “Me So Horny” here, but with a female perspective through the song. Overall, it works very well, and allows the album to go out strong.
Basically, Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. is an R&B/Soul album with some rap sensibilities put in, but with an abundant understanding of what makes a song click. There is nothing incredibly original or different with most of the tracks here, but it all works well because of the conviction put behind it by Teyana herself. Despite the fine quality of everything going on around her, Teyana is master of her own record. However, this album is not perfect, and these moments stood out enough to warrant mention. Nevertheless, I have actually grown to like this album more with each listen, proving its overall quality and the depth of enjoyment one can get here. It might not go down as “album of the year” or anything, but K.T.S.E. is well worth the time and attention needed for a couple of listens.