Cynicism is a growing phenomenon in music. True love songs are hard to come by these days. Deriving its name from Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Yellow Diamonds is a series of lyric breakdowns in which VIBE Senior Music Editor Austin Williams celebrates songs that sound like love found in a hopeless mainstream.
“I want to hear y’all wildest RnB takes,” a Twitter user declared on Sunday (April 10). In a quote tweet, I responded by noting how loveless the genre has become. “It be whole projects these days with not one song about actually being in love,” I wrote. This may sound like a harsh assessment of a genre that’s in the best critical and commercial place it’s been in years, but the statement is nonetheless rooted in truth. Sadness is overrepresented in today’s R&B, with few albums venturing to depict the love that often precedes heartache. An exception to this rule is Syd’s Broken Hearts Club.
Broken Hearts Club doesn’t sound the way I expected considering how most other R&B albums about heartache sound today. A line of demarcation could be drawn near SZA’s Ctrl, released in 2017, after which albums about insecurities, romantic disillusionment, and ni**as not being sh*t began to omit stories of the love that comes before loss. As resonant as these post-Ctrl records are, works like Summer Walker’s Over It and Still Over It and Jazmine Sullivan’s Heaux Tales distill a dissatisfaction with dating that filters out much of the fun of seeking love in the first place. Outside of occasional songs about sex, heartbreak albums of the past five years have rarely had much to say about the original connections that eventually faltered.
This is why I’m so struck by songs like “Out Loud” from Syd’s Broken Hearts Club. Like “Sweet,” a bent-knee ballad I covered earlier this week, “Out Loud” is a chapter in the album’s narrative detailing the beginning and middle of what was thought to be a worthwhile relationship. Written alongside Kehlani about people who are reluctant to love their partners in public the way they do in private, the duet isn’t completely blissful. But it contains a subtle enough frustration to serve as a seamless transition into the album’s sadder-sounding records.
Because of songs like “Sweet” and “Out Loud,” Broken Hearts Club’s final three tracks—“BMHWDY,” “Goodbye My Love,” and “Missing Out”—land with more weight than they would have if despondency dominated the tracklist. In a recent Uproxx interview with Wongo Okon, Syd explained her decision to give the album a lighter touch.
Addressing a question from Okon about how she avoided making an album that sounded “bitter,” Syd answered, “What ended up happening was, I wrote a couple of songs, I thought I was going to take this heartbreak and channel it, and it just didn’t come out right. It sounded nasty and I was like, ‘Okay nah, I think I need to heal first.’”
The result of that healing is a project that tells a holistic story about what happens before and after heartbreak. Essentially, the 29-year-old needed to take a step back and turn her phone to the side to snap a wider picture of what the hell she just experienced. Though she’s one of the few marquee artists to have done this in R&B’s current landscape, Syd has joined a decades-long tradition of stars who’ve dug deep enough to offer three-dimensional takes on heartache.
On Beyonce’s Lemonade (2016), an album written in response to Jay-Z’s infidelity and the broader plight of Black women, there are songs like “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles” that envision reconciliation. On Frank Ocean’s Blonde (also 2016), an album so sad people joke about the state of the world every time it re-enters the Billboard 200, there are bright spots like “Pink + White” and “Godspeed”—the former is a song about being taught to love and the latter celebrates love’s resiliency even once it’s no longer in reach. And on Here, My Dear—Marvin Gaye’s initially panned 1978 divorce album that later garnered retrospective praise—the acrimony of a bitter breakup is briefly interrupted by the uplifting track “Everybody Needs Love.”
At the risk of overstating how Broken Hearts Club measures up to such classics, it’s fair to note what they have in common is the belief that there’s more to heartache than the feeling itself. That belief is deftly detailed in the anxiety, and ultimately the love, expressed in the lyrics of “Out Loud.”
I’ve been wondering
Are we anything?
Or is it just out of my hands?
Out of my hands (Mm, ooh)
I can’t ignore it (Ignore it)
Why you haven’t told your friends
I wish you would call them
Tell ’em everything about me
How you feel around me
How you feel about it
You can’t live without it
Tell ’em what I’m doin’ for you
Let ’em know that I adore you
Tell ’em, babe (Tell ’em, baby)
Tell ’em, babe (Tell ’em, babe)
With most of the production on Broken Heart Club being inspired by the brightness of ‘90s R&B music, “Out Loud” is one of the few songs on the album that deviates from that sonic formula. Over an acoustic guitar, Syd begins her verse feeling unsure of the status of her relationship. Following songs like “Fast Car” and the aforementioned “Sweet,” “Out Loud” arrives at a point in the album’s narrative just outside the honeymoon phase, when it’s time to introduce your new relationship to the world.
Yet, in the context of the record, that hasn’t happened. Instead, Syd is left wondering why the love she’s given has been kept a secret for so long. What’s notable about this verse, as well as the rest of the song, is it doesn’t contain any presumptions. The hesitation of Syd’s partner isn’t met with an accusation of cheating or even a suggestion that such reluctance is intentional. Rather than allowing her confusion to escalate to confrontation, Syd offers sincere assurance and affirmation.
“Tell ‘em what I’m doin’ for you/ Let ‘em know that I adore you,” she sings. These are not the lyrics of a person yet disillusioned by disappointment. Ensuring someone who isn’t acting right knows just how much you love them requires subtle optimism. A far more cynical approach would be to cut off access to affection altogether. Though with a bit more vigor, Kehlani also maintains a measure of tenderness in the very next verse.
Why all a sudden you’re quiet?
Why suddenly you’re shy?
Suddenly, you ain’t mine
You’ve been mine for some time
Makin’ them sounds all night
Brought you way too high
You could never deny me to the ears of your neighbors
The eyes of the strangers that watch us when we walk by
‘Cause I’ve been loving you right
So what’s with all the silence?
Baby, you don’t gotta hide at all
One would be remiss to not recognize the significance of two queer singer-songwriters encouraging their partners to love them out loud. In addition to Syd’s ambition to avoid creating a bitter body of work, perhaps this is another reason why “Out Loud” sounds more anxious than it does angry. Following the lead of the Internet frontwoman, Kehlnai, who recently revealed they answer to she/they pronouns, also implores their partner to remember their love whenever they feel the urge to hide.
The slickest part of Kehlani’s verse hits toward the end: “You could never deny me to the ears of your neighbors/ The eyes of the strangers that watch us when we walk by.” This may be the best writing of the song.
Though a person can hide their relationship’s exclusivity, intention, and even its origin, there’s little chance of them being able to hide said relationship’s love. Because when true love is around, people notice. Even if your walls are thicker than Kehlani’s and you’re a bit more conservative about PDA, the people closest to you—those who presumably matter enough for you to deceive in the first place—will always know when you’re in love. Whether it’s in your eyes, your cryptic social media posts, or your curious absences from group gatherings, there’s always a sign when someone new enters your life.
As they sing, “I’ve been loving you right/ So, what’s with all the silence?/ Baby, you don’t gotta hide at all,” Kehlani seems interested in creating a space that’s just as affirming for their partner as it is for them.
Go ahead and say it
Go ahead and say it out loud
I want you to tell me right now
Usually you’re runnin’ your mouth
Don’t know what you’re runnin’
Don’t know what you’re runnin’ from now
I know where you’rе comin’ from now
I just wanna hear it out loud (Say it out loud)
The chorus of “Out Loud” is sung three different ways: by Syd and a choir, then by Kehlani and a choir, and finally by both vocalists and a choir. Each take sounds more triumphant than the last as if the listener is meant to assume each singer’s plea was heard and met with a happy resolution (of course, that would later prove to not be the case).
When I think of how attached R&B fans are to albums that validate their romantic suffering, I think of how the opposite seems to be true in Hip-Hop. Most emotionally mature rap fans would agree no matter how cathartic Drake and Future’s music may be, there’s something tiresome about hearing them lament the same failed relationships album after album. At different times, I’ve found songs from both men to be slightly sympathetic if not wholly relatable, but never enough to pretend “toxic king” music doesn’t have the potential to feel a bit trite. I think “sad boy/girl” music should be held to a similar standard.
Perhaps the reason it’s not regarded that way has more to do with the average person’s real-life experience than their taste in music. Earlier this year, I interviewed Muni Long about “Hrs and Hrs,” her 2021 viral hit and signature love song. Speaking about the creation of the record and the way it defies the cynicism that’s taken over the genre, Long explained, “It’s true to life. I’ve been married for eight years now. It’ll be eight years in June. And I really just enjoy intimacy. Like, spending time, nonverbal communication, all of those things. And I don’t care about people feeling like they’re too cool or feeling like it’s corny or whatever. Because you wouldn’t say that if you’ve actually experienced it.”
If that lack of experience explains the lack of love in today’s R&B music, then the world has a larger problem that can’t only be thought of in terms of songs and albums. As VIBE’s R&B Reporter Mya Abraham smartly observed in a recent essay, singers who bravely share their pain offer a “congenial embrace” to those who connect with such stories.
As someone who’s experienced an abundance of love in his life, all I can do as a listener is continue to search for music that embraces my good fortune. Today, that happens to be the snapshots of joy throughout Broken Hearts Club.