Ty Dolla $ign is R&B's cool older cousin

Ty Dolla $ign

Ty Dolla $ign Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records

A vagabond philosopher whose effortless punk-rap style is always a little outside the lines, Ty Dolla $ign takes a general life quandary, something that seems all the more outsized and dramatic the younger you are, and casually redefines it. He’s basically the more mature version of today's rap-singing R&B leading men—and of their fans.

Many of R&B's young, traditional pop leading men—Bryson Tiller (25), Chris Brown (28), Jacquees (23) —have their cool/sexy/fun/smooth moments, but they’re not that suave, that knowing. Not yet, at least. At 32, Ty can hang with this younger class, but he never sacrifices his sincere intellect or surrenders his sneaky profundity, in part because of his amazing voice, which he can adapt to any setting.

And he does this despite his name, which—let’s face it, Ty Dolla $ign is just about the dumbest name ever. But I’ve come to love it now. I still laugh at it, but I feel like I'm in on the joke, that sense of belonging you get when your cool cousin flashes you a know-it-all sarcastic look whenever some older relative starts going on about something.

Ty Dolla entered the larger pop music consciousness with Free TC in 2015, when he was 30, his maturity reflected in his voice—super sultry but always with the sound of a wink in it. Deep, grainy, oak-smoked, and grown.

On his latest, Beach House 3, the third installment of his popular mixtape series, Ty crisscrosses between the tones of classic blues and jagged rap. During one five-song tear (“Droptop in the Rain,” “Don't Judge Me,” “Dawsin’s Break,” “Don't Sleep On Me,”“Stare”), he hops from rap-tilted pimp verses to ballad-crooning choruses about commitment, then a Brian McKnight-style verse before a chorus that would fit nicely on a Travis Scott or Migos record, but scrubbed of any Auto-Tune.

This outta control coolness, a stretch in which Ty's shine doesn’t dim among features from the likes of Pharrell, Swae Lee, and Future (he shows up twice—that’s so Dolla), is balanced by the sing-along sweetness of songs like “All the Time” and the big-voiced exploits of “In Your Phone.” Ty Dolla's modern-edge/old school mellow flexibility is the source of his singular R&B acoustic ballerness, the furthest extension of his West Coast, beach-living, drifter-sage cool. 

Now, fame is a big topic in art. That's nothing new. But today, it seems like you’re not a pop-rap singer unless you file a rapturous rhapsody on all these moneys and the oh so many ladies. Ty, who successfully traverses in the Drake pop tradition though he is his elder, is also able to inspect it from his outsider patch of sand. Ty's take on fame is a lilting acoustic ditty examining notoriety like a cloud in the sky, as laid back as the rest are tirelessly melodramatic and twice as insightful.

Ty examines the phenomena of fame on the first song of Beach House 3, called, of course, “Famous,” setting the tone for the album. Like a philosopher, he steps back from the question at hand—what is fame?—to establish even more general ideas: “Everybody wants attention/ Want you to know they are standing right there” and “Everybody wants to be accepted.” These axioms, he suggests, both justify and explain the compulsion of fame.

In fact, Ty suggests, we better understand some fundamental aspects of ourselves the more we understand fame. He nudges us along this path with thoughtful compassion, lacing sincere arguments and observations with irresistible rhythms, bursts of silliness, and poetic winks.

If Ty defines the foibles of fame as a misguided pursuit to satisfy a base human desire, he’s never taunting or scolding, never condescending or regretful. He doesn't lament his fame or ridicule the way others deal with it or the people who lap up on his shores, each increase of recognition like a gust of wind curling ever bigger waves of bullshitters.

Ty’s mature, logical approach and melodic mastery on “Famous” elevates us through and above the unfortunate and indecent aspects of fame, or any human endeavor, and concentrates on what emotional needs motivate such things. The end of the song gives way to an airy harmony that's like ascending beyond the trappings of fame, and all other trivial terrestrial matters, the beach sands in view below, giving us enough distance from earth to appreciate it.

On the last song of Beach House 3, that airy harmony returns. “Nate Howard Outro” is spoken-word track about reckoning with death, and over this dreamy, afterlife melody, Dolla succinctly defines grief as “full of love and misplaced anger.” Suddenly, in retrospect, “Famous” sounds like a eulogy, asking us to understand those who chase after fame, and everyone who acts in inexplicable and even unforgiveable ways, from the perspective of their funeral, allowing them the benefit of understanding human futility that we grant after death but withhold in life.

“Just breathe,” Dolla intones. “Life is too short.”

Ty Dolla $ign
With: Marc E, Bassy, TC Da Loc, Dre Sinatra, and Toni Romiti
Where: First Avenue
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 7
Tickets: 18+; $29.50/$35; more info here