Every so often, a persona rises with enough detached angst and malleable exactitude to become a small phenomenon. You’d retweet and Instagram caption pieces of their songs because, after all, he’s singing your life. Drake has trafficked in this aesthetic most famously, and the Weeknd most fantastically.
Bryson Tiller strips the appeal to its bare essentials—realness as a coping mechanism for toxic romance. In the music’s bland economy—measured crooning buried within a moody, deep purple aesthetic—the project presents star ability as incidental to the feigned integrity. Maudlin whimpering stands in for vocal prowess because he’s just saying what’s on his mind; the clusters of platitudes and cliches are what they are, because Bryson Tiller—honest as hell—is you. Tiller’s musings are supposed to matter because of his suspiciously relatable, well-circulated backstory: He once worked at Papa John’s before blowing up on SoundCloud. This humble background allows him to keep it real, a quality often conflated with being decent.
True to Self, his latest, spends the majority of its runtime exploiting Tiller’s biggest weaknesses. He was still a Facebook-deep stand-in for performative vulnerability on breakthrough record Trapsoul, but the project was tightly edited enough to be inoffensive. Here, Tiller thinly stretches himself to 19 tracks with no added dimension. It ultimately amounts to a checklist for Broke Boys-turned-Hurt Boys, with Tiller listlessly ticking the boxes. Tiller is always somehow the wounded hero, no matter how fickle his grievances are. He just wants “to be able to walk into Target and people not be astonished” on “Before You Judge,” but oy vey, he’s a paranoid mensch who leaves his problems to God: “’Cause I know if I fix it, my daughter gon’ have to grow up without a father figure.” Never mind how mawkishly he delivers the line, because he will go the distance.
On “Stay Blessed,” our everyman Bryson Tiller—a libertine, but a kind one—wants his ex to stop being petty and come on back for some more of this poisonous relationship. “Dealing with clown niggas: Know your life a circus,” he says. Slandering the other guy has always been a scapegoat for one’s deficiencies, and Tiller’s banal insistency hints at why she left him in the first place. But pity the poor boy, because he’s tragically inundated with pussy. “Album overdue / You would find it hard to focus too / If you met the women I have,” an overwhelmed Tiller says on “In Check.” This is his struggle, and his alone.
Tiller has devolved since Trapsoul: his vocals runs are sapped of any energy and his raps are anemic. Worse off, the monotony of Tiller’s voice ends up corroding its surrounding parts. This strain of R&B has a fairly boilerplate style characterized by melting 808s, elastic based on the lead performer—PARTYNEXTDOOR has an ear for amorphous production, while dvsn resonate with their gospel tinges. Tiller’s skill-set plateaus at a role-player level, so by the time we reach the plastic “Self-Made,” the skittering hi-hats sound irksome and staid. The classicist-cajoling samples—Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, SWV—that twirl about in the nocturne are as lively as a corpse.
But True to Self is ultimately injured by its insistence that Bryson Tiller is no shtick. The cover draws instant visual callbacks to MTV’s True Life, and the Apple Music description is dying to make you believe this album is a document: “When you are being true to yourself, you are completely honest with what you feel, deeply value, and desire.” When he breaks from that mission on the lead single “Somethin Tells Me,” a deadpanning early obituary for a relationship told with R. Kelly-like looseness, the results are palatable. Nearly everywhere else, Tiller lacks any of the specificity and emotion needed to remotely address True to Self’s guiding maxim. It sounds like he only fucked you over because it sells.