Bryson Tiller, the man, isn’t supposed to be here. The ex-Papa John’s employee and admitted post-fame H&M shopper turned R&B breakout star is an anomaly in a Matrix-like world that seeks to destroy aberrations. On May 11, Bryson Tiller released three new songs, “Honey,” “Somethin Tells Me,” and “Get Mine,” to accompany the artwork reveal and release date announcement for his sophomore album, True to Self. The Young Thug–assisted “Get Mine” is the clear standout.
Based on the internet’s reaction, though, you’d have thought Young Thug was the bigger artist—I saw multiple pleas for a Thug-only version on Twitter—instead of merely being the bigger star. The difference between successful artist and successful celebrity goes something like this: If Bryson Tiller were to deliver a pizza to my door, I would not recognize him. If Young Thug delivered my pizza, I tell him, “Hey, my two favorite things in the world: pizza and Young Thug.” I would give Thug a hug and offer to mediate a sit down between him and Rich Homie Quan.
If we’re using sales as the defining metric of success, Tiller is the bigger artist. His debut, Trapsoul, went platinum; he has two double-platinum singles, one platinum single, and three gold singles. Thug does not have a platinum album nor as successful a single.
Still, this only tells half the story. Young Thug has appeared on magazine covers for Complex, Fader, XXL, and Dazed. He’s sat front row at Fashion Week, toured with Drake, worked on albums with Kanye, and been the subject of countless internet debates for his idiosyncratic rapping abilities and knack for pushing the outer stylistic and cultural limits of the genre. Tiller and Thug represent the diverging paths of success in 2017 and how commercial success and critical interest doesn’t always go hand-in-hand. But Tiller isn’t getting his fair due.
As a Tiller fan, it often feels like the world is conspiring against him. The world, in this case being critics, Twitter, and many of the women I’ve dated. And by hate, I mean something between indifference and contempt. Luckily, the aforementioned categories of people aren’t representative of the entire music-consuming population—hence Tiller’s sales. But this speaks to a real disconnect when it comes to the reception of Tiller’s music.
A Noisey review of Tiller’s 2016 Radio City Music Hall show—not for nothing, Tiller sold out the storied NYC venue two nights in a row—described his music as “insufferable and unimaginative. If you took the basic traits people are drawn to in Drake’s music…while siphoning out the personality and amplifying the pettiness, you would get Bryson Tiller.” “Don’t” was listed in Complex’s own “Songs We Hated in 2015,” with Frazier Tharpe writing:
“’Trapsoul’ fucking sucks, down to the name. It’s R&B with contemporary rap influences, get it?! What a blatantly basic distillation, all sensibilities and zero of the intangible talent powering artists like PND…I gotta go listen to “Break From Toronto” like 86 more times to flush this thin-voiced triddash out of my memory. My appeal to everyone trying to coronate Bryson Tiller, with his villain in a Victorian period piece-ass name, as the new guy? Don’t.”
Both critiques are harsh and hinge upon the idea that, because Bryson’s music wears its influences so plainly, it is lesser. If we’re sticking to this metric, then the general populace should have stopped listening to Drake’s So Far Gone when Noah “40” Shebib admitted to biting 808s & Heartbreak in a 2010 Vibe article.
Upon its release, most major media outlets didn’t bother to review Trapsoul, including music publications like Pitchfork and Rolling Stone. The album landed on a few end-of-year lists, but the lack of coverage speaks to the fact that very few expected this type of success from Tiller. If Drake’s story from teen star to pop star launched a thousand thinkpieces, Bryson’s story bagged a couple loose paragraphs. He’s a father, from Louisville, who worked part-time at the headquarters of a pizza chain and at UPS, while making music on the side. Trapsoul sounds it was made by a guy who worked at Papa John’s. This is not a slight; I look like a guy who would work at Papa John’s, and my feelings are real and valid.
Tiller’s plight is familiar in a way most R&B artists’ problems are not. Take the second verse from “Ten Nine Fourteen.” Tiller begins, in that boyish voice, “You know me, I gotta keep it real on this shit/My shawty mama put me out the crib, nigga I was payin’ bills/Almost got a third job, she don’t know the way it feels.” A couple bars laterm he spits, “My baby mama’s mama can’t say shit to me now/What did she do wrong? She better figure it out.”
As someone who has worked three jobs and lived in a girlfriend’s parents’ attic, I swear that that is a level of success and pettiness I hope to achieve one day. I love the Weeknd, and a song like “Often” is amazing in its own fantastical way. Lyrics like “Baby I can make that pussy rain, often/Often, often, girl, I do this often/Make that pussy pop and do it how I want it/Often, often, girl, I do this often” are aspirational. This is not the stuff of Papa John’s day jobs.
The only song of the new Tiller three-pack to come from his upcoming album, “Somethin Tells Me,” is deathly hilarious, partially because it isn’t trying to be. The chorus goes, “Yeah somethin tells me/We ain’t gon last, baby,” which is typical R&B fare. However, as the story unfolds, Tiller sings, “I’m busy, it’s no wonder you upset with me/You found a Magnum inside of my bag/Don’t know how to explain this/That was in there way before we started dating/This the only music I hate facing, oh.” Tiller is an honest storyteller, or at least he seems to be. Most of his songs work with this same comedic set-up: Tiller introduces a problem from his life, convinces the listener that it isn’t his fault, reveals a wrinkle in the story that points to it being completely his fault, and then finishes by stunting to make himself (and us) feel better.
A lot of Tiller hate stems from the belief that he’s derivative, that he lacks charisma and that his singing ability is lacking, and it foments into a kind of general bewilderment-cum-resentment at his success. All of this criticism misses the point. Bryson Tiller is great, because we’re all Bryson Tiller: talented, petty, hopeful, doing wrong, but striving for right.