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Every R&B Artist Wants to Sound Like Bryson Tiller

On ‘True to Self,’ a refreshingly quiet star stakes his claim

(AP Images/Ringer illustration)
(AP Images/Ringer illustration)

Bryson Tiller doesn’t talk much. He just sings. He’s that simple. Frankly, Tiller’s lack of a full-time public persona is one of the young R&B singer’s most endearing qualities. He doesn’t give interesting interviews. He doesn’t tweet recklessly. He doesn’t troll. On Friday, he delivered his second album, True to Self, a month before its promised release date, and he did so with minimal fanfare. And yet the singer will likely earn the first no. 1 album of his career later this week, no small feat for a budding star who styles himself incognito and carries himself like a civilian.

Tiller, 24, is the biggest R&B breakout artist of the past few years. Despite his chilly, subdued musical style, which favors ambience over climax, Tiller is shaping up to be one of his genre’s defining acts of the decade. He blew up a couple of years ago after his mixtape Trapsoul — released by RCA Records — slowly flooded the streaming charts with a decidedly cold and foggy strand of R&B. RCA discovered Tiller on SoundCloud, where his indie single “Don’t” had already attracted several million streams since its initially unheralded release in October 2014. The first phase of Tiller’s stardom was thus a slow burn, eclipsed as he was by the Weeknd’s massive pop-crossover moment and Drake’s aesthetic precedent. In April 2016 Trapsoul went platinum, owing largely to the massive streaming success of his two biggest songs, “Don’t” and “Exchange,” which have clocked 500 million combined streams on Spotify alone.

If there’s any radio earworm you might recognize even if you couldn’t pick Tiller out of a lineup, it’s “Don’t,” which serves as an encapsulation of his style: talkative crooning over lonesome hi-hats and ethereal vocal samples. That last bit is a crucial flourish in Tiller’s musical signature. In the liner notes for True to Self, Tiller cites 14 other musical acts as the album’s inspirations, and most of the artists — including Brandy, SWV, and Ice Cube — place Tiller squarely in the ’90s-nostalgia market.

To an extent, Tiller stole the R&B zeitgeist from Drake through imitation. Both sing in a breathy, conversational style that obscures a lack of real vocal power. Neither singer soars; instead their voices glide nicely. In their songwriting, both men make romantic relationships sound like permanent litigation. But where Drake imbues even his most endearing songwriting (I’m thinking “Hotline Bling” here) with the grandeur and self-obsession of a tyrant, Tiller scales his sense of conflict down to the most intimate, mundane level possible. The result is that Bryson Tiller songs all sound like soap opera confrontations and black-romance novel drama. True to Self is 19 tracks — nearly an hour — of Tiller luring women away from other men (“No Longer Friends,” “We Both Know”) and then preaching loyalty in the face of adversity (“Set It Off”) and temptation (“Stay Blessed”). Tiller’s a cad, as all male R&B stars are. But he doesn’t function as a singular persona with an esoteric agenda so much as he stands in for every fight that all young, unfaithful couples have ever had about other men and other women who may or may not exist.

Tiller is a populist star. In fact, he’s what we popularly call a “SoundCloud sensation”: He came up making sparse dirty-mack jams recorded on a $600 studio set that he bought from Target, and he leveraged those songs into stardom for himself while a few thousand upload imitators now struggle to mimic Tiller’s sound and success. Tiller has broken through without any knack for publicity or meta-narrative craft. He’s come of age in a moment when full-service personal branding is nearly a prerequisite for launching a successful music career, and yet Tiller is the rare case in which a Top 40 artist’s sound really does precede their social presence.

Tiller released True to Self last Friday with no explanation, just a tweet: “I know we said June 23rd… but i say we Set it Off Tonight!! ALBUM OUT NOW @AppleMusic.” It’s not unheard of for a record label to shuffle album release dates for artists whose buzz unexpectedly falters. But in this case — with Tiller set to beat out Lil Yachty and Gucci Mane, who also released new projects Friday, in first-week sales and streams — it sounds more like an artist dispensing with the pleasantries and busywork of album marketing altogether. Undoubtedly, more music videos are coming, and the tour is on the books. But for now, we’re in a strange grace period when Tiller is a star without the hype machine to back him up. In his songs, he’s on some bullshit. In reality, he’s quiet as kept.