Bryson Tiller has somehow managed to live out the dream of practically every SoundCloud rapper, whilst also bucking the trend of such a rise to prominence from humble beginnings entirely. Although any number of young adult males self-releasing their impersonations of R. Kelly on the Internet would kill to be in the position of a 22-year-old Tiller, who came onto Drake‘s radar courtesy of the attention garnered by his breakout single from 2014, Don’t, the young musician turned down the offer to sign to the Canadian hip hop icon’s OVO Sound record label, instead scribbling his name at the bottom of a contract for RCA Records. This willingness to take the path less trodden has translated into some bold moves made throughout Tiller’s meteoric rise to prominence over the last two-to-three years, with the singer and rapper dominating the charts despite his decision to release his debut full-length album from 2015, T R A P S O U L, without the assistance of any guest artists whatsoever. With features proving so integral for accumulating a substantial amount of exposure for so many artists in the current popular music climate, such a choice was unequivocally brave, even if Tiller’s reason for reaching this resolve was largely out of a lack of confidence in his capacity to get fellow musicians on board with his music. Yet, despite lacking the power of name recognition to capture fans from across the world of R&B and hip hop, T R A P S O U L quickly climbed the charts, paving the way for its successor, True to Self, to completely blow it out the water, by instantaneously shooting to the number one spot on the Billboard 200, despite its complete absence of features yet again. Of course, Tiller’s success sans the help of guest musicians on any of his projects is undeniably impressive from an industry perspective, but such an approach puts the spotlight entirely on the artist himself, which could easily prove to be too much to handle for some. Indeed, whilst Tiller’s claim that he is the only singer or rapper that his music would ever need is an unequivocally endearing sentiment, when considering just how much the MC wears his influences on his sleeve — with both his music and his presence as a performer reeking of fellow artists to find through-lines between contemporary R&B and pop rap, such as Chris Brown, Omarion and, of course, Drake — T R A P S O U L fell massively short of the mark when it came to establishing a definitive musical identity for Tiller. With True to Self, like its predecessor, also boasting vocal contributions from Tiller and Tiller alone, it seemed as if the musician was perhaps setting out to take another crack at carving out his own, singular place within the R&B and hip hop scenes. Unfortunately, however, not only is this not the case, but the entirety of the record reads like a complete rehashing of T R A P S O U L on just about every level, with Tiller providing no real justification for this decision in his lack of growth as an artist. As such, the salient issue of one-dimensionality that was present on his debut appears on True to Self arguably twofold, given that this sophomore album is a quarter of an hour longer than its precursor, falling just shy of the one-hour mark. With such little variation, originality or musical maturation present across True to Self, it only makes sense to call into question whether this album even serves any purpose for Bryson Tiller’s artistry, as it seems to be entirely dependent on the success of its predecessor.
Whilst it may be somewhat unfair to say that Bryson Tiller has no strengths of his own that cannot be found elsewhere in the contemporary R&B and rap game, it certainly doesn’t seem as if True to Self plays to any of these strengths if they do exist. Then again, even a rapper with an extensive arsenal of tricks and quirks would struggle to carry an entire 19-track project all by themselves without spreading all of their most cogent strengths so thinly that they lose most of their potency. Therefore, for an artist such as Tiller, whose entire persona and style are derived from the blueprints laid out by his progenitors, to even attempt to hold down the fort for an hour-long album is, at best, a shaky undertaking, and True to Self puts to bed the question of whether or not Tiller has the charisma to retain a semblance of sincerity or self-awareness across such a lengthy endeavour. Indeed, for the amount of time Tiller allows himself to convey at least some sort of compelling character, either in his performances or his lyrics, practically the entirety of True to Self is spent treading water, and water that has already been explored extensively by the singer’s artistic forefathers at that. As was established on T R A P S O U L, Tiller carries a similarly lyric tenor vocal tone to that of Chris Brown, whilst many of the melodic trills and occasional use of vocal fermata in his deliveries strongly resemble the singing style of Drake, even if his voice is of a relatively different tone. The combination of these two salient vocal influences, however, does not form a wholly distinctive singing or rapping style for Tiller — or, at least, not in the way that he likely intends — rather he tends to waver between these two vocal approaches without sticking to either one, making for a slightly awkward inconsistency in his deliveries that seldom translates into a persuasive performance. A song such as Run Me Dry showcases just how clumsy Tiller’s vocals can sound against the wrong instrumental timbre, with the layers of vocals twisting together without striking any well-textured tones, especially thanks to the aimless, faintly auto-tuned moans that line the mix, whilst the sparse, borderline inconspicuous beat only emphasises how carelessly the vocals come together. On the complete opposite end of the instrumental spectrum, the bass-heavy trap production that supports Tiller’s rapping on Blowing Smoke seems to be dying for a more hard-hitting performance, which the artist’s vocal tone simply does not have the weight to pull off with any vigour, especially as his delivery devolves into some of the most formulaic and perfunctory flows imaginable. With the singer’s ungainly yelping over the blocky, thumping trap beat of We Both Know being a similarly poor match, one would be hard-pressed not to hear that True to Self is in dire need of some features even during its earliest moments, which, upon first listening to the album, does not bode well for the latter half of the tracklisting. Instead, however, Tiller seems to be his own worst enemy, constantly tripping himself up with his poorly-worked performances and weak writing. Whether it be his decision to completely abandon anything resembling a hook on songs such as No Longer Friends, which instead inserts a phone-quality recording of a couple arguing about infidelity and incest in place of a refrain, or to sing without the assistance of any percussion for nearly two minutes on In Check, which Tiller simply lacks the charisma or the vocal chops to pull off fluidly, far too many of the musician’s moves as a maverick on True to Self miss the mark entirely when it comes to persuading the listener of his adaptability or individuality. This is also reflected in the production across the record, which is as lacking in detail or substance as every other aspect of the album. If anything, the instrumentals over which Tiller finds himself performing prove to be perhaps the most uninspired and flat component of practically every cut in the tracklisting, with their barrenness almost never being justified through the establishment of any vaguely substantial melodic tones, let alone any persuasive performances from the singer. Indeed, the vast majority of songs in the tracklisting simply see stubby 808 kick drums and clacking trap hi-hats copied-and-pasted across a three-minute audio track, whilst the only melodic body of any of these cuts typically comes in the form of samples lifted either from other rap songs or songs that have already been sampled by other hip hop artists, as is the case on Don’t Get Too High, You Got It, High Stakes and Before You Judge. Simply put, for the amount of ground that Tiller retreads across True to Self stylistically speaking, the fact that the artist leaves nothing resembling a distinctive feature of his own on this sound embodies the primary flaw of his undertakings, that being that the entirety of his work is undercut by the readily apparent lack of singularity that makes for a generally bland listening experience.
The extent to which True to Self is stamped with any sort of hallmark of Tiller’s own is also greatly hindered by his limited scope as a lyricist, which clearly takes cues from Drake and his narrow outlook on women and relationships, which tends to flip-flop between superficial melodrama and baseless bravado. In the case of Tiller, at the worst of times, his depictions of his relationships with women are so shallow and self-defeating that any attempts to come across as a white knight are quite hastily counteracted by his own admissions of unfaithfulness. Don’t Get Too High, for instance, besides witnessing the musician constantly rhyme words with themselves, sees Tiller mask his controlling character under the guise of protecting the song’s addressee against her own apparent inability to know her own limits when it comes to alcohol and drugs. Instead, the singer assures this girl that he is the only drug she could ever need, before slipping in that he is already involved with some other women, all whilst without using this twist for any effect other than to simply evoke the rudimentary lyrical tropes of this brand of alternative R&B. Likewise, the album’s lead single, Somethin Tells Me, tells the story of a relationship destined for failure after Tiller’s girlfriend catches him cheating, with the artist adding absolutely nothing of substance to the details in the storytelling of this song beyond this short summary, with the chorus merely being a repetition of the same two lines. With Before You Judge being a desultory take-down of the MC’s supposed haters that amounts to little more than some slapdash, paranoid ramblings about some unnamed nobodies who are allegedly attempting to remove him from his position in the music industry, whilst Money Problems / Benz Truck witnesses the artist attempt to evoke sympathy in the listener about the ills of his wealth, despite bragging to them about his senseless strive for riches earlier in the track, Tiller quite simply lacks any shrewdness as a writer to make the most of the mundaneness of his subject matter. Indeed, far too many of Tiller’s lyrical pursuits across True to Self were so clearly decided out of a lack of creativity or originality that it should be no surprise that the singer has nothing at all new or vaguely endearing to bring to the table on any of these songs. Even Self-Made, which, on paper, could have made for an interesting insight into the musician’s meteoric success after declining Drake’s offer to sign to OVO Sound, simply sees Tiller list off all the brand names that he can now afford, whilst going into little or no detail about his actual come-up, despite the track’s title explicitly alluding to this topic as the key concern of the song. With even the songs that feature fragments of at least somewhat refreshing lyrical concepts being completely squandered on cursory clichés relating either to crude portrayals of women in relationships or banal braggadocio that displays not an ounce of subtly or nuance, Tiller’s endeavours as a lyric-writer across True to Self, like his pursuits as a performer, are so brazenly derived from the likes of Drake and Chris Brown that the artist’s unoriginality becomes as much of an issue as his one-dimensionality.
To call many of the songs across True to Self bad in any flagrant fashion may be unfair, but, if anything, it’s the complete and utter dearth of anything meaningful that makes the project so painfully ordinary. Like T R A P S O U L, True to Self could certainly be said to be relatively innocuous for the most part, but this is what makes the album all the more frustrating. Solely on a superficial level, there is so little of substance to True to Self that feeling strongly about the album either way may seem gratuitous, but digging beneath the surface reveals such a cynical lack of creativity or originality that a feeling of exasperation is unquestionably justified. With True to Self doing absolutely nothing to advance Tiller’s artistry, let alone distinguish him from his contemporaries, whilst providing nothing that is not already readily available on its precursor or any number of releases from the artists from whom it so shamelessly takes cues, the entire record seems completely unnecessary on every level. Sometimes a derivative record can prove to be even more draining to listen to than an album that is actively of poor quality, and given that True to Self presents not one vaguely novel idea across its entire hour-long runtime, it strays dangerously close to this territory.
The Vinyl Verdict: 4.5/10