Bryson Tiller has surprised me since his early days of uploading singles on Soundcloud. By the time I finally clicked play on his lead single and breakthrough hit ‘Don’t’, it had already accumulated millions of plays. Shortly after, he already had a release date for his debut album. Either I was extremely behind on just how popular the young artist was or his ascension was happening faster than other acts in his class. The former proved to be true when his debut Trapsoul was released to the masses. With a strong backing by RCA and enough hit singles to extend the project’s life well past its release date, Trapsoul was an undeniable hit. It went on to go platinum and has spent close to 90 weeks on the Billboard 200 since its release. While Trapsoul and Bryson’s success pointed towards the early makings of a star, there was still a slight disconnect with me. Tiller is hardly the greatest singer and his rapping is passable but lacking confidence at times. Where his greatest strength lies is his ability to compliment the sample-flipping beats that are his weapon of choice and create a mood for the listener. Over the past two years, he has been relatively quiet, until he surprise released the 19-track True to Self follow up a month early. Things are a little different this time around. There’s no huge single, minimal promotion, and a heavy reliance on the success of Trapsoul to make True To Self a follow up success. With news that he will debut at number one on the charts this week with over 100,000 sold, it seems that he has only become more popular in his absence. The question is would the music have the staying power of his debut.
Kicking off the long setlist is the Intro ‘Rain On Me’. True to the 90’s R&B songs that most of the album pulls its samples from is the sound of raindrops to open the record. The opener is short but sweet and remains almost identical in tone and aesthetic to most of what was heard on Trapsoul. One of the biggest compliments of his debut was how well the music was sequenced. The way the intro transitions into ‘No Longer Friends’, indicates that Bryson has not lost a step in that department either. Issues start to arise when you realize that you aren’t even noticing when the songs have changed. To say that the album plays like one long song would be taking the criticism to an extreme, but it’s not without some truth behind it. The first potential single comes with the addictive ‘Don’t Get Too High’. The Travis Scott sample lives throughout most of the record and carries the hook well. It’s a nice mix of rapping and singing Bryson. It seems that the success of his first album has made him a cockier artist, and for good reason. This is evident in the more straight forward rap cuts on the album.
‘Blowing Smoke’ is the first example of this. The beat sounds like something Drake would spit some of his more braggadocios rhymes over. It becomes evident fairly quickly after making that comparison that Bryson Tiller doesn’t quite possess the confidence to fully pull a record like this off. Confidence is something that artists continue to develop over time. Drake himself arguably didn’t reach his current level of mic presence until ‘If You’re Reading This’. Tiller shows similar deficiencies on the two part ‘Money Problems/Benz Truck’. The beat switches to a fantastic brooding instrumental, but Tiller’s bars don’t resonate enough and he isn’t quite charismatic enough to match the energy of the instrumental. Most of the moments where Bryson raps on the project left me wishing the beat was given to a different MC. The one exception lies towards the end of ‘Self’ on ‘Before You Judge’. It’s by far Bryson’s most introspective performance. He speaks on his experiences during his time off and issues with managers and fake friends. It would be interesting to hear more personal content from Bryson in the future as it is much more engaging than what we’re used to hearing from him.
After the ‘Exchange’/’Deja-Vu’ fiasco from late last year where Tiller and J. Cole used the same beat, it’s interesting to hear Bryson pull samples from other recent songs. He samples Travis Scott on the aforementioned ‘Don’t Get Too High’. He uses the same sample found on Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Feel’ on ‘You Got It’, and he even uses the sample from Wale and J. Cole’s ‘Beautiful Bliss’ on ‘High Stakes’. These are all implemented well and Tiller may just have the highest sample budget in all of music at this point besides Kanye. Luckily he puts them to good use as ‘High Stakes’ is one of the strongest moments on the album and sounds like a direct extension of a great Trapsoul song. It feels triumphant and once again is a good showcase of Bryson’s hybrid rap/sung delivery. Tiller is most interesting when he traverses outside of the box he’s been making music in and tries something new. ‘Run Me Dry’ may not be revolutionary in today’s climate, but it’s Bryson giving his take on the more dancehall-esque tracks that rule radio today. He succeeds and not only will this most likely be the next single choice, but it will also be a style he probably explores more in the future. The penultimate track and lead single ‘Somethin Tells Me’ is the catchiest song on the album and one of the best vocal performances by Tiller to date. It was the no brainer single choice and could grow at radio similar to a ‘Don’t’ or ‘Exchange’, albeit not quite to the levels those did.
True To Self confirms every doubt that I initially had about Bryson Tiller. The album is stuffed with filler and songs that sound more and more similar to one another the more you play the album. The hope with a sophomore album is that the artist can take what they did well on their debut, refine it, and create something that’s tighter and more cohesive than the first. True To Self kind of fails to accomplish any of those things. The streaming era has been extremely detrimental to the release of short albums. It has forced the labels hand, because more tracks equates to more streams which means more sales and a higher debut on the charts. It’s good for business and bad for music. Stand out tracks are few and far between, and at this point it’s unclear if Bryson’s talent would be better served as a rapper or a singer. His hybrid of the two has become stale on album number two, save for a few songs. There are many things to criticize on True to Self but it’s difficult to call it an absolute failure. We’ve mentioned the length and the similar sounding beats and melodies, but ultimately the most disappointing thing here is the lack of growth. Perhaps a 10-track version of this album would have hid some of the album’s shortcomings and changed the perception altogether, but instead we’re left with a bloated 19 track bore. The bright spots here are when Tiller steps out of his comfort zone, but those moments are just too few and far between.
Repeatable: ‘Somethin Tells Me’, ‘Teach Me A Lesson’, ‘High Stakes’, ‘Run Me Dry’
Skippable: Interludes, ‘We Both Know’, ‘Set It off’
By Scott Evans