New York City ain’t nothing to fuck with. In hip-hop, this goes without saying. Sure, other cities may think they run this shit — and if you turn on the radio, it’s a feasible assertion — but the city is still home to the harshest critics and fans, as well as the industry cognoscenti that venerates new artists and capriciously forgets about them a week later. Singer and rapper Bryson Tiller knows what he’s up against with this first show at S.O.B.’s this week. “I do. I feel the pressure sometimes,” he says, calling in from a Chick-fil-A in Los Angeles. He sold out the venue in one hour, but he gets apprehensive about a potentially tough crowd. “Do haters buy tickets to people’s shows?”
The 22-year-old is riding high from the success of his viral hit, “Don’t.” Released last year, the song has racked up over 20 million streams online. The song about cautionary love has a moody, drunk trap vibe and fits well up against the current r&b/hip-hop meridian. “After I recorded [‘Don’t’] I was in love with it. Then I sent it to a few people and they didn’t like it. Two rappers…they didn’t want to get on it.” The song eventually broke with friends at the University of Kentucky and encouraged him to upload it online. Catalyzed by the viral hit, Tiller followed up with his album, Trap Soul, earlier this month.
“After I dropped [‘Don’t’] on SoundCloud, it seemed like everything came quickly. Every week something amazing was happening.” Amazing is an understatement. Tiller received nods from legendary producer Timbaland, Drake, even Sylvester Stallone. In perhaps the strangest co-sign of the year, Sly shouted him out on Twitter for his song “Rambo”: “People please check out BRYSON TILLER NEW SONG CALLED ‘Rambo.’…Pretty amazing if I say so myself!! Great.” Tiller says that he was completely shocked (seriously, who knew Rocky Balboa was on social media?) and found himself breaking into an impromptu, celebratory performance at his hotel when he saw the tweet.
But it’s the shout-out that Tiller has turned down that’s causing the most commotion. Tiller declined an offer from Drake to sign to his OVO Sound label. It’s no secret that is Drake singlehandedly breaking artists in a way that no one else is currently. He’s incredibly adept at embracing emerging trends, and his label is home to burgeoning acts iLoveMakonnen and PartyNextDoor. It would make a lot of sense for Bryson Tiller to go this route, but he signed with major label RCA Records instead. The reason? He says he’s been burned in the past — twice — by signing to independents who ended up being flimflam men.
“When I dropped my mixtape in 2011, there was this guy who wanted to sign me to this independent label. I signed because I thought he had a lot of money and stuff. I thought it was a good decision. Nothing happened. Then I started messing with this other guy that wanted to sign me and nothing came of that, either. I’m super-naïve when it comes to business decisions. I don’t want to make another decision based on emotions and stuff.” Conflicted, Tiller called Drake’s right-hand producer, Noah “40” Shebib, and got his advice in signing with RCA. She bib said, according to Tiller, “That’s not a bad deal at all.”
Tiller’s anxiety could stem from the fact that he never had artistic aspirations to begin with. Growing up in Louisville, Kentucky, he describes himself as “weird” and quiet in high school (“I can’t be myself around a bunch of people because I’m afraid of them judging me”). He began singing as a way to impress the ladies (“I started singing for girls in school. I was singing Chris Brown. I didn’t get any girls”) and earned some buzz when he remade Lil Jon’s classic “Lovers & Friends” in ninth grade. “It made me want to get back in the studio and do more.”
The realities of life soon affected his trajectory. He remembers working three jobs at once, including a gig at a Papa John’s factory, in order to make ends meet. He also experienced domestic strife when the mother of his girlfriend kicked him out of her house, forcing him to live in his car. He says the two reconciled at his daughter’s second birthday recently.
The glare on his professional and personal life is only increasing. Some artists spend their entire careers hoping and praying for and striving after fame; Bryson Tiller is grappling with it. “My manager was telling somebody, ‘[Bryson] is just a kid not used to…getting all this attention. Now he’s getting this attention. It’s weird for him.’ Which is true.” He pauses. “I don’t like it, to be honest. I like when fans come up to me and show love. I haven’t had a fan like shriek and cry but I know those days are coming.” Aside from his camaraderie with his fans, what keeps him going is a relentless fear of failure. “I always have this fear that I’m gonna wake up at any moment and look at my alarm clock like, ‘Damn, that was just a dream!’ I have this fear that I’m gonna be the old man on the porch, talking about, ‘Oh man. I was gonna take off and do all these nice things,’ ” he says. “I don’t want to be the old man on the porch. I want to be the old man in the Hills or something.”
Bryson Tiller plays S.O.B.’s on October 21. The show has sold out, but check secondary markets for tickets and hit up S.O.B.’s for table reservations.