Bryson Tiller’s sophomore album leans heavily on ’90s R&B samples. It sounds luxurious, but Tiller’s come-up narrative and good-guy pose are starting to lose their power.
Bryson Tiller knows his origin story. Since the breakthrough success of his 2015 debut album, Trapsoul, the Kentucky-born R&B singer remains committed to that come-up narrative. He worked at Papa John’s, threw a song on SoundCloud that grabbed Drake’s attention, turned down the offer to sign to OVO, and instead signed with RCA and ended up with two Top 40 hits (“Don’t” and “Exchange”). True to Self, Tiller’s sophomore album, which was surprised-released a month early, tries to offer new dimensions to that story arc while reconstructing the dividing lines between R&B and every other genre.
Over the last year, Tiller’s R&B peers PARTYNEXTDOOR and Tory Lanez tried to find new roots in dancehall, and the Weeknd went further into the pop machine. On True to Self, Tiller isn’t so much of a globalist. Instead, on “In Check,” he samples Brandy’s mid-’90s hit “Missing You,” then further gambles by putting samples on the album from Faith Evans, Ice Cube, Mary J. Blige, and Tweet. The album’s credits read like a ’90s old-school station in much the same way ’70s and ’80s funk and soul provided the backbone of hip-hop and R&B two decades ago.
More precisely, Tiller’s roots can be found in Bobby Brown or the post-new jack swing machismo of Jodeci, rather than the buttoned-up slickness of a Boyz II Men or Babyface. “Don’t Get Too High,” an early album highlight, uses an uncredited Travis Scott sample from his 2014 song “Backyard,” as Tiller talks down to a former fling, “Woah, you make me feel how I make other bitches feel/Like you be cool without or with me here.” There is just the slightest hint of self-awareness that shows Tiller can see through his own nonsense.
Before the lines of R&B and rap fully blurred, a rapper on an R&B song would bluntly state its emotional themes, while the singer would only offer hints. Tiller’s generation has streamlined the workflow, so he turns on a dime from the struggling ex-boyfriend to an aggressive rap star. But it’s Tiller’s pettiness, rather than romance, that drives True to Self, as he adjusts to the trappings of fame. “Somethin Tells Me” hinges on that tension as a bedroom drama morphs into a lament on the grief caused by fame and success. Tiller reveals little more about these privileged concerns than Drake has already done over the last decade—in fact, he sounds the most comfortable at the shallow end of the emotional pool.
The 1998 SWV hit “Rain” is sampled on the opening interlude of True to Self to try and establish a new tone for Tiller’s world. Rain is a powerful trope in R&B: Justin Timberlake’s “Cry Me a River” video, the raindrops on Trey Songz’s 2010 album Passion, Pain & Pleasure, New Edition’s late ’80s hit “Can You Stand The Rain,” and Prince’s classic “Purple Rain.” Rain stands for emotional change and vulnerability and True to Self tries its best to follow through on that idea. Except, he struggles to let his guard down, and ironically, operates best when he keeps it up. Tiller comes off not as the passionate lover, but as the sappy everyman—too bland and full of tropes to be the new hero pouring his heart out in a thunderstorm. Maybe that's why his personal narrative that he holds so close feels wrung dry.