On Monday at Webster Hall, Bryson Tiller played the first in a series of three sold out New York shows. He stood alone onstage, at the center of a heap of smoke, beamed through with pink and purple spotlights. A live band was tucked into the corners of the stage around him and further out, a crowd of young women and affectionate couples clung on to every ad-lib. Occasionally, they sung Tiller’s songs so loudly that it was hard to hear him.
From behind the veil of a black baseball cap, he coasted through most of his hit 2015 mixtape-as-album T R A P S O U L, a document of early-20s life where he works through feelings of self-righteousness, regret about a girl he’s left behind, and the resolve he found in the wake of that love. Among my peers, the album is loved for its honesty, but Tiller has remained meticulously private throughout his rise, tweeting sporadically and not giving up too many details about the specifics of his love life.
But from the stage, he seemed comfortable directly addressing fans. He paused to speak between songs with backstories that warranted a retelling: before “Ten Nine Fourteen,” Tiller told the tale of a drive to Philly that ended in a phone call from Timbaland, jumpstarting his career. He talked about Drake, who followed Tiller early on, and who Tiller is often compared to. And after bodying a high-energy rendition of “Rambo,” he dedicated “Sorry, Not Sorry" to some of his exes, who recently popped up in his DMs. To them, he said: "I made this song that they could hear it."
With all that smoke, Tiller appeared mostly as a silhouette. Sporadically, the gold chains hanging over his black T-shirt emerged through the spotlight. But while the performance perpetuated his enigma by design, his live vocal came through refreshingly clear. As the show progressed, his posture became more reflective of his command of the venue.
Before Tiller was here, with hundreds of eager fans singing back at him, he worked at Papa John’s and UPS in Louisville, Kentucky. In the past months, he has often acknowledged how far he has come, and on Monday he took care to repeatedly thank the crowd for their affection, and filmed them for his Snapchat. He ended the night with the slow and reflective “Right My Wrongs," standing firmly planted in what looked, from the audience, like flourishing stardom.
Asked last year if he could have predicted that "Don't"—his online breakout turned radio smash—would go on to accumulate more than 3 milllion plays on Soundcloud, Tiller said he did not anticipate it would do so well. "I deleted [the song from Soundcloud] and then a bunch of people were telling me I should put it back up," he said. On envisioning success for himself, he continued: "I [felt] like I could but I didn’t know exactly how it would happen and what I would have to go through to do it. It was easier than I expected. I mean, it was still hard but to get here, all I had to do was make music and give it my all."
If Tiller has ever felt that good things have come easily to him, or that they might be taken away, he now seems to understand that a crucial component of his music—which speaks for and to a lot of people—is him.