In 2008, MTV was preparing to launch a hip-hop game show called Bustas. I thank Almighty God that Viacom spared us. The shelved, unaired clips from Bustas star a skinny L.A. kid who goes by Tyga, and whose first order of personal branding is to assure the audience that even though he “grew up not too tough,” he’s “still street” and has, in fact, “been in the alley.” Tyga launches himself into a freestyle, punch-line rap flow to say that last bit — twice.
It so happened that in 2008 Tyga was already a professional rapper who had just released his debut album, No Introduction, on Decaydance Records, executive produced by label founder and Fall Out Boy frontman Pete Wentz. No Introduction sold less than 7,000 copies in its first week, but Tyga’s business relationship with Wentz led to a friendship with Lil Wayne, who signed Tyga to Young Money Entertainment before No Introduction even came out.
As a Young Money artist, Tyga would go on to record songs with Wayne (“Faded”), Drake (“The Motto”), and Nicki Minaj (“Muthafucka Up”), thus cobbling together a vaguely worthwhile hip-hop career. Tyga’s quest to brand himself as an MTV goofball by day, club rapper by night would come full circle in 2015, when MTV2 aired the first season of Kingin’ With Tyga, a reality show that follows Tyga through early fatherhood amid an estranged relationship with his son King Cairo’s mother, Blac Chyna; extravagant downtime around the globe; and various friendly interactions with the singer Chris Brown. The promos for Kingin’ With Tyga are no more or less cringeworthy than that old, disused footage from Bustas.
“So you know me from being a rapper,” Tyga announces in Kingin’s earliest trailer. Once upon a time, sure: The rapper born Micheal Ray Stevenson had a top-10 single, “Rack City,” released in December 2011. Let’s not skimp on due credit here: “Rack City” was a hit record big enough to match Drake’s peak chart position (“Take Care,” no. 7) in 2012, the year of “The Motto.” And, importantly, “Rack City” was the earliest hint of the producer DJ Mustard’s inevitable saturation of hip-hop radio and the pop charts for the next three years. To date, “Rack City” is both Tyga’s and DJ Mustard’s most successful record. In the grand scheme of human achievement, AD 2012 was Tyga’s year. That was ages ago.
Listen: There’s no shame in failing to follow the success of a great pop single with a full-on discography that’s … less than great. Tyga’s had subsequent hit records only insofar as he’s officially stapled himself to Chris Brown (“Ayo,” “Bitches N Marijuana”); lucked out with a posse-cut placement on the Furious 7 soundtrack (“Ride Out”); and recorded one minor hit (“Hookah”) that is, in every other practical sense, a Young Thug song. The rest is a wash. Tyga’s most recent solo project, The Gold Album: 18th Dynasty, released in June 2015, sold 2,200 copies in its first week. It happens. But what Tyga has accomplished in the five years since “Rack City” is more remarkable and, frankly, more perplexing than just the common, dumb luck of a one-hit wonder. Tyga has returned to his roots.
This month, Kingin’ With Tyga comes back to MTV2 with six episodes that reveal a very apparent improvement in production value, sure, but still in service of a persona so strange and bland that I get seasick just thinking about it. Just as Tyga isn’t a very good rapper, or even a successful one, nor is he a particularly charismatic or otherwise worthwhile subject of dramatized TV documentation.
Tyga inherited his post-rap relevance through proximity to the Kardashians. Tyga and Blac Chyna met on the set of the music video shoot for “Rack City” in 2011, and dated until 2014, when Tyga reportedly left his son’s mother for Kim Kardashian West’s half-sister Kylie Jenner — then under 18 years old. The age disparity between Kylie and Tyga, in his mid-20s, inevitably sparked concerns that Tyga was preying upon a minor. The Kardashians themselves have never been thrilled with Tyga’s integration into the family orbit. Kris Jenner and Kourtney Kardashian have characterized Tyga as a bad influence, and Kim has said that Kylie and Tyga’s romance wrecked her own friendship with Blac Chyna.
Scorned by everyone but his benefactors Wayne and Kanye West, Tyga now defines himself by his acts of spite. When he was struggling to release The Gold Album in 2014, Tyga ran to Vibe to spill his frustrations with Cash Money Records and his prolific and massively successful labelmate Drake. “I don’t like Drake as a person,” Tyga said. “He’s just fake to me.” Drake caught wind of the insults, of course, and responded in February 2015 with a song called “6PM in New York.” “I heard a little-little homie talking reckless in Vibe,” Drake raps. “It’s so childish calling my name on the world stage / You need to act your age and not your girl’s age.”
Drake’s diss would begin a new round of criticism regarding Tyga and Kylie’s off-again, on-again romance, which raised concerns of statutory rape in the media. As if the relationship itself weren’t controversial enough, Tyga would attempt to answer the critics with a song called “Stimulated,” released in August 2015. Kylie Jenner, age 17 at the time of recording, stars in the music video. On the hook, Tyga raps, “She a big girl, dog, when she stimulated.” This was trolling at its most grotesque. And it was all for naught, considering that the subsequent controversy generated waves of interest in Tyga’s personal conduct while generating zero profitable interest in his reliably bad fashion or his increasingly bad music.
Tyga really is Ray J all over again, what with his selfish and pitiful contribution to the family business. If you recall Ray J at all, you’ll remember that he once launched a putrid nostalgia tour begging everyone to remember his sex tape with Kim Kardashian. In 2013, six years after that sex tape leaked, Ray J released a song called “I Hit It First,” with lyrics (“I had her head going north and her ass going south / But now baby chose to go West”), a music video, and even single cover art crafted to remind us all that, yes, Ray J and Kim Kardashian West once had sex. Such is the shameful lineage that Tyga now inhabits: the dark and underachieving male who eats at the kids’ table and stews in the matriarch’s long shadow. The spiteful prince. The pretender.
At one point, Kylie and Tyga split. I won’t tell you when or for how long, it doesn’t matter. Kylie, by now 18, was rumored to have briefly dated Drake’s songwriting partner PartyNextDoor, appearing in a couple of his music videos. And yet, as of June, Kylie and Tyga seem to be together. Here we go again.
Which brings us to the second season of Kingin’ With Tyga, the latest dramatized chapter in the life of a rapper whose celebrity must be some sort of accounting error. I know, I know: The general, buzzkill critique has always been that reality stars, including Kim Kardashian West and her O.G. mentor Paris Hilton, don’t ever seem to be doing much of anything — or at least nothing artful, virtuous, or productive. In making that argument, critics and freelance haters discount the entertainment value of kayfabe acting, as if professional wrestling or reality TV shows are any less ontologically valid than Oscar Isaac waving a toy blaster at the behest of J.J. Abrams.
There is an operative difference between a winning reality star and Tyga: Kim Kardashian West is fun to watch and contemplate. Tyga, not so much. He’s an MC, ostensibly; a streetwear mogul with no good clothes; a rapper-turned-actor in every sense of the phrase; a human male with few relatable traits and no desirable ones; a fly on the right wall but with no profound insights into the nature and mechanics of celebrity. Tyga remains, however, an excellent troll: His recent single “1 of 1,” is a shameless facsimile of Drake’s summer hit “Controlla,” which hasn’t even fallen out of the Hot 100 yet. And Tyga’s latest song title and cover art work better as bait than as actual music. This kid is not a star.
So what are we watching here, exactly? And why? In his career’s earliest stages, Tyga left a few crucial clues to his appeal. Go back and watch those Bustas clips all the way through. Note how the producers frame Tyga’s title-card introduction not as a matter of charismatic potential, but rather as a subject for clowning; they cut the footage to emphasize Tyga’s awkward rap hand gestures and second-guessed punch lines. Whether he’s rapping, dancing, or fronting, Tyga elicits the one audience response that always suits him: laughter.