Bryson Tiller could be r&b’s best utility player, not despite, but because his team is in flux. R&B can seem lost if you get distracted by the fact that it’s hard to find in its unadulterated state. Pop and hip-hop have absorbed r&b’s core elements — vaporous settings, minor keys, freaky sound libraries — so pace-setting artists are doing r&b work under other names. Go to Billboard’s r&b album chart and you’ll see range and relevance, with Tiller in the middle of it. His new album, True to Self, enters both the Billboard 200 and r&b charts at number one; on the r&b chart, his 2015 debut, T R A P S O U L, has held a spot for 87 weeks. Rounding out the top five there are Bruno Mars, Khalid, and the Weeknd, each with an album that signifies as much pop as r&b, or more specifically, uses r&b as a move, not a principle. Childish Gambino is in at 4, with an album that doesn’t do much to mask the fact that it’s several Seventies P-Funk albums compiled and lightly appended. History is the foreground now: There is a Michael best-of at 14, a Prince best-of at 22, and Legend at 15.
The biggest reggae album of all time signifies across several charts, but the artists most likely to keep West Indian music in circulation are working in the crease between hip-hop and r&b. Drake’s “One Dance” is hip-hop only by virtue of the artist’s other work; it is musically Jamaican and British, and not exactly rapped, so a singer like Tiller will be able to pick up this thread faster than most MCs.
Tiller does just that on “Run Me Dry,” a fragile digital skank from True to Self co-produced by Boi-1da, one of the in-house strategists at Drake’s OVO Sound label. If the 24-year-old Tiller seems muted next to Drake’s vision of global dancehall, the song is convincing enough to keep him in the larger, hybrid game. In 2015, Tiller borrowed a fan’s SoundCloud comment on his song “Let Em Know” — “trap soul movement” — and turned it into the title for his first album. Tiller doesn’t see multitasking as a problem. R&B will continue to be absorbed into pop and hip-hop — merger or buyout unclear — or go through another periodic style revision, and Tiller will likely have a gig.
At the beginning of 2013, Tiller was living in his hometown of Louisville, working three jobs and living in his car. His SoundCloud page reached both Drake and Timbaland, both of whom reached out. Timbaland gave Tiller two beats for T R A P S O U L, while Drake gave him a pair of sneakers and a shot on his label. Though Tiller chose RCA over OVO, Drake is still the musical theme that takes up the most space on both of his albums. On T R A P S O U L, Tiller suggests the 2 a.m. Drake, apologetic and confused. On True to Self, he’s more like the 9 p.m. Drake, lecturing before the night begins, even if it’s not his night to manage.
Tiller is still fiddling with his person, but he’s settled on a delivery. He sounds relaxed, and stays creamy in all situations. Twenty-first-century r&b, post-Drake and post-Frank, is short on melisma and extended vocal runs. This keeps singing closer to the conversational, moving a few stations nearer to rapping and a few farther from the church.
T R A P S O U L, from the title down, inhabited the anxiety over where a singer should land. The hi-hats were dirty and loud, the beats slow enough to suggest all the rappers Tiller cleverly did not end up featuring. True to Self is a solid step up at the level of production, largely because of the young unknown NES, a solid candidate for Timbaland’s seat.
Tiller needs the musical cushion — he is going for a self that is romantic only by uniform, not policy. In “Set It Off,” he promises, ever the smoothie, that the woman who expects less will get more from him. “Don’t Get Too High” is a “Hotline Bling” kind of dressing-down. His mate is getting lifted and going to clubs and Bryson is not having it. In “Something Tells Me,” he prophylactically breaks up with someone because she found a Magnum condom in his bag. This is either the underpinning for an unreliable narrator, or a bunch of dick moves.
Or Tiller is just mean-mugging to keep his persona moving. His upcoming tour keeps the subject line appropriately vague. His opening acts are producer Metro Boomin, a pole position force in rap, and spacey alt-r&b singer H.E.R. Together, they represent the forces running alongside Tiller and helping to keep him in view. Album-three goals for Tiller: more NES and a topline professional like The-Dream weaving some empathy into the game. But if Drake gets caught on something shiny and new, expect that to become due north.