Bryson Tiller Recharges His ‘Trapsoul’ Stylings With ‘Anniversary’
Having emerged in Louisville, Kentucky, and carved out a distinctive name for himself, Bryson Tiller broke through with his 2015 album, “Trapsoul,” a title that effectively spoke to the times. As the edge and bounce of trap stylings had long begun to grow stale, and the sounds of soul have been in search of fresh updates ever since the style’s inception, Tiller zeroed in on a relevant nexus, going onto collaborate with the likes of Rihanna and DJ Khaled, and scoring several Billboard distinctions. Drake eventually wanted a piece of the action, although Tiller chose to sign with RCA Records rather than Drake’s OVO imprint. Ostensibly, there’s no bad blood, as Drake himself features on Tiller’s latest album “Anniversary.” Released exactly five years after “Trapsoul,” the new record finds Tiller embracing the heavily ‘90s R&B sounds that informed much of his early work, and distilling them into a fresh output, in a set of sentimental songs that bring out all of his expressive range.
On opener “Years Go By,” Tiller looks back in retrospect from a new maure enlightenment. A mellow, languid, instrumental backdrop nods to generations of R&B, while a voice over the phone emphasizes the importance of letting bygones be bygones, and sticking to your true self. In a flash, Tiller erupts into his distinctive flow, sounding at once confident and vulnerable, launching into melismatic tangents and returning promptly to rhythmic assertions. The track is a brief intro, dissipating into a cloudy, jazzy haze that sets the mood for the album. “Always Forever” arises out of this, with Tiller now launching directly into the sappiest strain of R&B, giving context to the album title, as he nudges on his paramour, “Say Goodbye,” on one hand dismissing unrequited love with a begrudging farewell, but also suggesting a notion of time being frozen, as it often is in a heated romance, with nebulous voices emerging and meshing into Tiller’s effortlessly gliding, emotive display. The combination of romantic abandon and resolute conviction is one that Tiller nails and condenses effectively into under three minutes, while so many artists would have needlessly belabored the charged material.
The lo-fi aesthetic that has often so often set apart OVO tapes especially resurfaces on “I’m Ready For You.” There’s a vague psychedelia at the core of the music, although of a decidedly R&B strain — phasers and shape-shifting, amorphous sounds that resonate and lend themselves naturally to the type of fluid melodies that emanate from the most serpentine R&B stylings. Tiller continues from where he left off in the previous track, but proceeds from merely wallowing in a lost feeling and lingering in its aftermath to issuing new declarations. The art of switching sporadically from rapping to R&B crooning is, of course, nothing new, but there are countless practitioners who undersell the style, alternating between gruff, murderous rap tauntings and chipper falsetto, in a way that can be endured with only the most dedicated suspension of disbelief. Tiller raps with an unaffected sincerity in his voice, and glides into melody seamlessly in a way more in line with masters of their craft like Usher and Omarion.
Tiller settles into a groove, and comes across with a new swag on “Things Change,” as one might expect from the concise confidence of the title. Having dwelled in self-pity and strained reflection for a considerable portion of the album so far, he springs up with a new glint in his eye, flexing with some of the usual hip-hop braggadocio, balanced with a sort of harmless alacrity. His lexicon and posturing range all the way from the neon animations of early ‘90s hip-hop to the trap-informed cadences of today, while his choruses approach the sensibilities of various trends that came along the way. The final hook of “Nah, for real, you can have this shit / But you ain’t slowin’ me down either way” is somehow consistent with the sound. ”Timeless Interlude” comes at just the right time, retreating into a muffled sonic space in which classic Kanye West-esque pitched-up soul samples ring over a loungey piano, as Tiller revels about having made it this far, puts the drama of previous tracks into perspective, and even emulates Kanye’s inflections at moments as a beat drops over the murky, warbling backdrop of meshing samples.
After all the gentle musings that have characterized the last few tracks, Tiller returns reinvigorated on “Sorrows.” Sure, the subject matter is still in the realm of sobby, sentimental effusion and dance routines born of contrition, but the attitude and energy that emerges as a result makes that all but irrelevant. There are traces of aughts boy band stylings here, but then again, there are louder echoes of New Jack Swing, without which the former wouldn’t exist. On “Inhale,” Tiller digs way back, sampling both SWV’s “All Night Long,” from the “Waiting to Exhale” soundtrack, and Mary J. Blige’s “Not Gon’ Cry.” The result is a sprightly throwback to an era that revives the spirit and sensibility of a specific era without ever seeming forced. Tiller and his entourage beam with nostalgic gusto, until opening into a version of the present moment specifically tied to that moment. The lyrics correspond, with a refrain of “Inhale, exhale, yeah / I might take another hit before I set sail” leading into the quite hilariously relatable line, “When my text fail, I had hit you from another cell.” A beat change near the end keeps the surprises coming.
Next comes the fanatically anticipated Drake-featuring” “Outta Time.” The song follows in the vein of recent tracks, with an instrumental constructed from processed, whimpering vocal samples fading in and out of clarity, with Drake now swooning over the mix about being smitten, yet harboring doubts about the trajectory of a relationship. Both Drake and Tiller are on full, soulful crooning duties, running through cascading melodies, and filling every syllable with an audible emotion that shifts shapes with that distinctly R&B fluid expressivity. A midway pause lasts just a touch too long, and it’s a relief when the beat starts back up, setting the stage for Tiller’s round. The two singers back to back make for a thrilling juxtaposition. Their timbres and their melodic instincts are not all too different, but Drake leans more toward a glossy pop finish, while Tiller’s voice, although light and translucent overall, comes with a relative smokiness within it. Brief moments when the two join in early ‘90s R&B harmonies are a definite highlight.
Tiller shows his true versatility, launching at shortest notice into the most glossed over soulful stylings on “Keep Doing What You’re Doing.” He keeps up with a female singer cloaked in the most gleefully liberal reverb, and chimes in with soothing adlibs, over ‘80s drums, chords, and ambiance. The reductive hypnosis in the way Tiller repeats the titular line is a perfect expression of finding one’s self fully subject to another’s charms. “Next to You” rounds off the album with a hard-hitting beat that comes as a refreshing bit of edge after all the mellowness of recent tracks. Tiller continues with the same tricks as the last track, but this time the repeated line is “I gotta get next to you.” Pitched-down vocals repeat the phrase throughout the song, laying the template over which Tiller’s stream of consciousness flows. Unlike the typical pitched-down vocals that sound like gangster taunts for trap choruses, Tiller’s processed audio is full of vulnerability, and after a whole album of professing his affection and associated neurosis, one has to take him at his word.
“Anniversary” is an album that lives up to its title, with Tiller revisiting the sounds that made him first standout on his debut, and extending them further. He draws from the sounds of ’90s R&B — both the lighthearted spirit that made its way into the melodies and voicings of that era, and the elaborate harmonies that still bore vestiges of the ‘80s but with a fresh update. That said, Tiller has always sounded strikingly contemporary. His music is sleek and pointed, and pulls from both the grit of trap and the melodic directions specific to the new school of R&B that has emerged over the last decade. The Drake feature is nothing to blow minds, but it also offers hardly any cause for complaint. Tiller sounds right in place alongside the artists he samples, Mary J. Blige and SWV, as his sound spans an evolving tradition. Overall, Tiller’s latest album is a set of emotional, melismatic outpourings, comprehensively informed by R&B history, and delivered with plenty of swag.
“Anniversary” releases Oct. 2 on Apple Music.