Release Date: November 13, 2015
Label: Taylor Gang / Pu$haz Ink / Atlantic
Significant delays on the release of hip-hop and R&B albums are usually the fault of skeptical labels. But in the case of Ty Dolla $ign’s long-gestating major label debut, Free TC, it seems like it’s more his fault than Atlantic’s: The album is a dense, cinematic, always surprising and often moving album that sounds like it required the full three years that the L.A. crooner and producer spent chipping away at it to get right.
Half of these songs trickled out prior to release date, and those paying attention could have reasonably expected the album to be almost comically varied, and mystifyingly weird. The chilly, atonal trap of “Blasé,” the New West Coast, Kendrick-heavy symphony “L.A.” (in two different versions), and the subway-platform acoustic funk of the Babyface collaboration “Solid” all have a strange, gradually appreciable appeal, but couldn’t have been more disparate stylistically. Ultimately, though, the full, final 16-track Free TC is much less motley than the leaks anticipated, and his best full-length project since his debut mixtape Beach House.
Most of these songs are based on the same underpinnings as the definitive Ty Dolla $ign text — 2012’s “My Cabana” — featuring a brash, anchoring synth lead, a multi-tiered drum part tweaked to the point of no longer sounding like a loop, and plenty of sub-bass. However, Ty and his trusted team of producers (Hit-Boy, Metro Boomin, his own collaborative unit D.R.U.G.S.), studio musicians and arrangers have filled in all cracks and crevasses in that basic architecture, and stacked up almost too many trimmings on top, as if they’re aiming for the rap game “Good Vibrations” on every song. A tightly harmonized choir lurks in the background for most of the album, and stabs from a 19-piece string orchestra (courtesy of noted MJ/Justin Timberlake arranger and composer Benjamin Wright) are almost as frequent. Some of these harmonically adventurous layers would have sounded at home on D’Angelo’s Black Messiah.
Ty’s lyrics —often willfully lacking in metaphor or any semblance of good taste — take on the importance of a sermon from a mount against these backdrops; it’s hard to conceptualize how satisfying the moment of initial finished playback on some of these must have been. The drop into the second half of the chorus of the booming, house-informed “Bring It Out of Me” — “I’m a freak but I can’t help it / Bring your girlfriend, don’t be selfish” — especially lodges in the pit of your stomach, and turns an otherwise anodyne song into one of the album’s highlights. “Miracle”/“Whenever” begins as a orchestral expansion of audio from a YouTube video of Ty’s incarcerated younger brother, recorded in jail, and ends up as slightly demented congregational R&B, with Ty’s coarse voice pitch-shifted out of recognition. Even the album’s weakest tracks — the R. Kelly-featuring “Actress” and the elliptical Kanye/Puffy collaboration “Guard Down — feature stunning, overcrowded closing instrumental sections; one just wishes Ty had spent more time on the details of these respective songs themselves.
It would be a real reach for skeptics to continue to write Ty off as a lowest-common-denominator, ratchet-era Nate Dogg hook delivery service after giving Free TC a run-through. At the biggest proving moment in his career, he’s allowed himself to be, more loudly and proudly, the ambidextrous, exuberant studio rat — with more talent than he knows what to do with — that he’s always been. Maybe now he’ll finally get the recognition he deserves for it, because whether you like it or not, a perennial sleazemonger has just turned out one of the year’s more visionary hip-hop albums — in a year that was full of great hip-hop.