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The Time Trap of Bryson Tiller’s ‘Trapsoul’

With his third album, last Friday’s ‘Anniversary,’ the mercurial R&B singer is intentionally recalling past glories. Will it produce the same results?

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Bryson Tiller isn’t in Tenet. But much like the characters in Christopher Nolan’s new, convoluted movie, the R&B singer is a slave to time. Early in the film, Clémence Poésy unsuccessfully tries to explain to John David Washington how to “invert” a bullet into his hand, which is a fancy way of demonstrating how to rewind time. She finally says to Washington, “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it,” which is as good a distillation of Bryson Tiller’s career as any.

To this day, Tiller’s jump from mercurial Kentucky singer releasing one-off songs to SoundCloud to the voice of a very specific R&B generation is perplexing. By the mid-2010s, Drake had already taken his first spoonful of creatine and left the land of simp-R&B behind for greener (faux-kingpin posturing) pastures. In the wake of his departure, a new cadre of Apple Music– or RCA-backed singers filled the void. Streaming was still novel and Tiller, 6LACK, and SZA, with their narcoleptic brand of R&B, embodied something attainable. Few people can claim the abs of a Voodoo era D’Angelo or reach the vocal heights of a Mariah Carey, but who among us hasn’t ruined a relationship decked in all Nike Tech fleece? Tiller’s 2015 debut, Trapsoul, initially arrived with a whimper, selling 22,000 in its first week, but by the end of 2017, it had been certified double platinum and cemented Tiller as one of the most successful R&B acts of the last decade.

Tiller was a prodigy of distilling man-boy tendencies to a man-baby audience and the women with the misfortune of dating them. On Trapsoul’s breakout single, “Don’t,” he introduced the world to a scumbag quotable for the ages when he sang, “Girl, he only fucked you over ‘cause you let him” and instantly the caricature was solidified. Then after a maligned and rushed sophomore album that Tiller made in the midst of depression, he retreated to raise a family, post happy couple photos on Instagram, and attend parent-teacher conferences. But as countless stars of the streaming boom can attest (Chance, Bieber), domestic bliss and parental woes rarely make for interesting career pivots. And thus, Tiller’s third studio album was home to a multitude of quandaries.

How do you reignite a stalled career that’s less than a decade old? Is it possible to create a world where Tiller isn’t forever chained to the monolith that isTrapsoul? Do people even want to hear a mature Tiller?

In the face of the seemingly insurmountable, Tiller and Co. decided to do the only thing possible to circumvent Trapsoul’s larger-than-life shadow: They ran it right back.

Anniversary is a marketing sleight of hand, presenting Tiller’s third album as a spiritual successor to his debut. The projects share a release date and font, obnoxiously stylized as A N N I V E R S A R Y. Instead of a saturated red cover featuring a forlorn Tiller looking to the right, we’re now presented with a blue saturated Tiller looking pensively to the left. The lead-up to the album featured the release of a deluxe version of Trapsoul and a new video for the project’s emotional closing song “Right My Wrongs,” five years after the fact. The sonic textures and the reversed samples and the SoundClick-ready beats all sound more like they belong in 2015 than 2020. It’s a savvy hook meant to remind hardcore—and even casual—fans why they fell in love with Tiller in the first place without having to slap the title Trapsoul 2 across the packaging.

Tiller’s meta-narrative is the only force that seeks to push him out of the nostalgic stasis that informs most of Anniversary. As its name dictates, Anniversary is an album about time and how Bryson Tiller the celebrity deals with it as an antagonist. The first words we hear on opener “Years Go By” aren’t from him, but a man putting his predicament into perspective: “Worrying about or tryna figure out what they need to think or like it or not / Oh man, you gon’ have about five years go by / Next thing you know, you ain’t gon’ wanna do this shit no more.” In response, Tiller sets himself up as the reluctant hero pondering why he can’t “relax right now” after years away from the spotlight.

There’s a constant sense across Anniversary that time—and by extension, the success of youth—is moving past Tiller. It’s in everything from the song titles (“Years Go By,” “Always Forever,” “Outta Time”) to the lyrics. On “Timeless Interlude,” Tiller sings “But really life is flashin’ by, 22” one minute and a few bars later admits “skimmin’ through this picture folder / Wishin’ I could live it ovеr.” It’s midlife crisis music made by a man that’s not even 30.

“For the next two years in my life before I turn 30, I’m gonna just give this music thing my all, have fun with it like I was doing when I was 17 years old. Because I don’t wanna be doing this shit forever,” Tiller told Billboard last month. “I love making music, but don’t care for being an artist as much.”

Even decidedly anti-Tiller topics like death, familial regret, and doubt are excavated in ways the singer seemed incapable of at the beginning of his career. The best moments on Anniversary find Tiller pondering what you lose as you age. On the penultimate track, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing,” listeners are greeted with a voicemail from Tiller’s grandmother, who passed away earlier this year. The first words Tiller sings are, “I wish I believed when you / Told me you believed in me.” From there he dedicates the song not only to his grandmother, but the man she thought he’d become. By the end, Tiller isn’t cured of his self-doubt or loneliness. He simply reiterates his grandmother’s advice that he should keep doing what he’s been doing. For most of Tiller’s career that’s meant defying expectations.

It’s unclear whether Anniversary’s time-travel gambit will work. There isn’t a song that’s as instantly memorable as “Exchange” or a lowbrow hit that’s ready for mass consumption like “Don’t,” but when those songs arrived they weren’t immediately adopted into the modern R&B canon. It may also be for the better considering how many R&B playlists are filled with songs that are essentially revamps of Trapsoul. The success of Tiller’s debut opened the door on an era that only its creator could close. Now that he’s finally looked back on the art that defined him, the clock is reset. The anniversaries he’s already made won’t stop, and whether he wants to make new ones is completely up to him.