Surprise surprise. If you haven’t yet heard, Bryson Tiller decided to release his sophomore studio album, True to Self, a full month early, effectively sending all us Bryson Tiller fans into a tizzy. Tiller’s debut album, Trapsoul, ended up being one of my favorites of 2015. It was a successful slow burn I never meant to love but by the time summer 2016 had come around I realized I’d listened to the album far too many times to claim complete indifference. They were perhaps one or two songs I didn’t much like but the overall sound was refreshing and simple with vocals emotive and authentic. The whole thing was imbued with elements of trap and went hard at times but always had an underlying softness, a vulnerability that seemed to be lacking overall in the hip-hop scene at the time, both lyrically and musically. When he sang (and rapped), he was telling his own story, a common story; Tiller’s success with Trapsoul relied on his ability to create songs that expressed his identity as an every-day man with musical choices that slowly wormed their way under your skin. His voice too was unique and not necessarily the best technically but he knew what to do with it and told as much as he could through some well placed runs and silences. In fact, Trapsoul often embraced a less complex production to its advantage, telling musical stories simply and beautifully.
So now that I’ve reviewed his debut album…how does True to Life follow up?
Unfortunately I am disappointed. There’s maybe 4 or 5 songs I like on the whole album but the rest falls flat and runs counter to everything I love about Trapsoul, trading in simplicity and authenticity for monotony and superficiality. They aren’t necessarily bad songs and I think only 1 or 2 are actually a step backwards in terms of musical choices (ie.“Before You Judge”). But I can’t help but think the whole thing is uninspired and more of the same with very little growth on the part of Bryson Tiller. And that’s not good enough for a musical landscape which has changed so much in the past two years, especially in the genres that Tiller is working in. What growth there is often feels like a less successful version of what I’ve heard before, co-opting the stylings of DVSN or Drake (also using the same sample as Kendrick Lamar’s “FEEL.” on “You Got It”???) but not doing it better or even as well as those artists can. I can understand a little what he was trying to do, change up his style, show he’s up to date on what’s changed, but instead it seems he’s unable to successfully combine all the elements into one cohesive musical story, the whole thing coming across as hollow and hackneyed: he’s become too confused about what he wants to say and loses his artistic voice in terms of the musicality of True to Self.
I think this is readily apparent in the length of this album. Way way too long. 19 tracks?? Both lyrically and musically, there’s nothing to condone this. He could’ve said all he needed to say in 13 tracks and been done with it, especially since I didn’t even like a song on the album until “In Check”, the seventh track on the album (that’s a third of the way in FYI). It’s as if Tiller knew something was wrong but didn’t know what and instead of solving the problem, attempted to compensate with more tracks, adding to an overall sense of uninspired monotony. The tracks just mesh into together into one block of sound and I honestly can’t distinguish half the songs from one another. This is a problem not only with the production but also the ordering of these tracks and musical ideas. On Trapsoul (which was 5 tracks shorter by the way, a much better length) the songs had variety in terms of production and tempo, the songs ordered in a pleasing way that made sense, the whole album thus an easy listen. On True to Self, the variety isn’t well placed and we have a lot of the same kind of song one right after the other and then too much variety back to back that messes up the flow of the album. I’m specifically thinking of the boring tracks 1 – 6 and then the odd mish mash of musical stylings that is “Self-Made” through the “Rain Interlude”.
I also had a lot of problems with the vocal choices on this album. Tiller’s tonal energy often left the overall impression that he did not want to be there, his voice usually low and bored sounding, a lethargic mumbling for most of True to Self. As if Tiller wasn’t committed to the story he wanted to tell, singing about things he thinks people want to hear instead of what he wants to say. Like bad musical acting. The half-hearted vocals paired with the monotonous production and lengthy runtime not only made the tracks boring but also less authentic than they could have been. He loses the every-day man aesthetic that made Trapsoul so personable. This isn’t necessarily true for all the songs however (though the exceptions are few and far between) and I especially like the emotionality of tracks like “In Check” and “Teach Me a Lesson”. And maybe the most energetic of the track’s on this album, “Self-Made”, featured a Bryson Tiller who didn’t sing and rap like he’d rather be doing anything else than making this album.
Lyrically, True to Self wasn’t as disappointing. Although there are too many songs on the album, and the lyrical content could be condensed, the lyrics are never as boring or as fake sounding as some of the music and vocals. They tell the stories in the same vein of Trapsoul: a rundown of Tiller’s messy personal life, still seemingly consistent, vulnerable, and honest. Bryson Tiller often forgoes repetition in his lyrics, crafting songs that evolve as the album moves forward both within and without each track. Although I didn’t musically like the interludes or first six songs on the album, lyrically they were solid. I just wish Tiller could have backed up the lyrics with some smarter musical choices.
Though I feel there were very few songs that marked forward progress artistically, the few that True to Self did contain were definitely good songs by themselves. “In Check” is the first song I like in the tracklisting and the simple and unfiltered piano makes it perhaps Tiller’s most vulnerable and endearing of all his tracks (including Trapsoul). The drop at 1:55, especially after the simplicity of the piano arrangement, is well executed and well produced, the whole song never boring or monotonous as it continues to both evolve and and explore its own sensitivity. I also liked “Self-Made”, “Teach Me a Lesson”, and “Set It Off”, but for a different reason. These are the few songs that Tiller successfully combined current trends in R&B (and good use of samples, which is spotty throughout most of the album) with his own sound, creating songs that change up the flow of without being a clear-cut co-opting of another artist’s style, successfully breaking us out of the bored monotony that is most of True to Life. “Teach Me a Lesson” especially represents this success as the combination of modern Zapp-style vocoder R&B (à la the more modern iteration, Bruno Mars’ 24K Magic) and high guitar was a really clean, well produced mix of trap and R&B, expertly paired with Tiller’s vocal style. The whole thing builds and evolves in interesting ways as well, especially with vocals that are vulnerable and sweet. I wish this sound would have been explored more on True to Self instead of the boring “I think this is what people want to hear but I’m honestly not really sure” tone that it ended up being most of the time. Maybe True to Life will be another slow burn like Trapsoul but I guess we can only wait and see.
Sidenote: The drop in “Set It Off” at 0:33 is my favorite musical moment on the whole album. So damn crisp and clean and well produced and good. Why did I have to wait until track 15 to hear it?
Sidenote again: Where is the “Honey” SoundCloud release?? I think a more polished version of that would have been better than some of the other tracks…
tl:dr for my favorite tracks: “In Check”, “Self-Made”, “Teach Me a Lesson”, and “Set It Off”.