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Review: On Campaign, Ty Dolla $ign Isn’t Just a Stud

One assumes, given his fame and wealth, that Ty Dolla $ign is the sort of person he portrays himself to be in his songs, which is to say a man whose most pressing matters in life involve fucking the most amount of women as possible while simultaneously never letting them get close enough to be anything more than that. That’s the Ty Dolla $ign we know explicitly, at least. But last year’s debut studio album Free TC presented him, more implicitly, as an artist in the lineage of R&B’s many great horny geniuses—which is to say a man who, when he isn’t fucking women who he doesn’t want to be his girlfriend, is laboring judiciously over his music in some studio somewhere.

Free TC was an album defined by its good taste. Singles aside, the effort was layered and detailed, with a sound that was lush and exquisite, like an elaborately decorated mansion. But, like an elaborately decorated mansion, it could also feel a bit stately, as if the songwriting was secondary to the ornamentation. But what ornamentation! The list of collaborators—which included Brandy, Jagged Edge, Babyface, R. Kelly, and Sa-Ra—felt acutely influenced by the idea of curation as a high-class profession; but, shit, if I was making an album I would probably call up Jagged Edge, too. Free TC did not turn Ty Dolla $ign into a superstar, but it succeeded on smaller terms, using an upgraded budget and expansive imagination to provide a throughline back to the smeared atmospherics of mixtapes like his memorable Beach House series.

Campaign—a mixtape in name that feels not quite like a mixtape but not exactly like an album, either—is at its best when it carries on that tradition of richness of sound as a virtue in and of itself. Like Free TC, its middle is satisfyingly fattened up, like it just gorged on a Thanksgiving meal. Songs like “Zaddy,” which foregrounds a melody that blurs the line between the sound of a vocoder and the sound of a chorus of women moaning in unison, and “Clean,” which evokes the pleasurable warmth of a high, feel generous and comforting, with catchy songwriting to boot. “Pu$$y” breathes life into the now-fossilized DJ Mustard-snap&B sound with burbling live bass and a playful synth line that reminds us that Mustard’s productions offered more than just their simplicity. It’s on these kinds of songs where Ty Dolla $ign is at his most vital, as an artist situated firmly in the contemporary mainstream but whose music feels like the work of a dedicated classicist.

When Campaign shades more toward that contemporary mainstream, it does not exactly flatter Ty’s artistry. There is a three-song suite of sorts at the beginning of the album featuring Future (“Campaign”), Migos (“$$$”), and Travis $cott (“3 Wayz”), where Ty feels grafted onto the sound of each respective artist—Future’s heavy-lidded numbness, Migos’s stuttering whiz-bangery, and $cott’s haunted-house anthems. These tracks feel like an exercise in producing the most obvious and least interesting collaborations between some of rap and R&B’s most ubiquitous characters. Thankfully, “R&B,” produced by Atlanta-rap mainstay Zaytoven, shows that Ty can find the middle ground that eludes him on the earlier tracks, and with a certain panache that makes you wonder exactly what happened.

There is supposed to be some sort of political bent to Campaign, as its cover might indicate, but aside from a short intro about gang violence, Ty spends the album singing about what he knows most intimately, which is intimacy. But he picks politics back up again on “No Justice,” featuring Big TC, his incarcerated brother who is a frequent figure in Ty’s music, both literally and in spirit. Like the best parts of the project, “No Justice” seems to hang in the air like a cloud you could climb onto, but given its subject matter it feels like a hymn. Big TC, taking the first verse, narrates a scene in which a cop pulls over a black man. “We all created equal but ain’t nothing about us equal,” he sings softly through a jailhouse phone. “There can never be no justice when killing us is legal.” One gets the sense that Ty Dolla $ign could write luxurious songs about sex for an indefinite period of time, but as new protests are forced to sprout up in the wake of new extrajudicial killings of black men in Tulsa and Charlotte, “No Justice” hints at a weightier future.