The range of vocal tones in mainstream, male R&B has narrowed markedly in the last decade. In the early ‘00s, R. Kelly relished bluesy growls and fervent recitation, while his main competitor, Usher, landed hit after hit with his lithe, spotless delivery. Today’s popular R&B singers channel Kelly’s style—his phallic focus, his “R&B Thug” persona—but from Chris Brown to The Weeknd to Jeremih, they almost all sing like Usher.
There is nothing wrong with light voices, but when only one kind of singing dominates, whole swathes of expression go missing. Enter Ty Dolla $ign, whose major label debut album, Free TC, is out now. Ty’s vocals are throaty and granular, smudged around the edges and slathered onto his tracks. And these aren’t the only thing that make him unusual: Ty narrates the life of a lothario with unmatched enthusiasm.
On Free TC, his unique tone is present, but chastened—especially compared to the pair of Beach House mixtapes that initially earned him national attention as a solo artist. Part of this is no doubt the tempering required to put out a major label project. (Free TC’s release date was pushed back by Atlantic several times.) But the album also comes with a somber story: TC is Ty’s brother, currently in prison for an alleged connection to a murder. Snippets of a phone conversation between the siblings are woven between songs, a reminder that Ty’s pursuit of pleasure does not make him immune from personal tragedy.
The core of Free TC is a series of ballads that draw heavily from ‘70s deep soul and ‘90s slow-burn R&B. These eras have always inspired Ty—he interpolated Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 hit “What You Won’t Do For Love” on “Zone’n” in 2012 and sampled Mint Condition’s 1991 single “Breakin’ My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)” on “My Cabana” the same year. But the singer doubles down on that commitment here. On one song, he teams up with Babyface, who helped engineer R&B’s ‘90s crossover. On another, he recruits Jagged Edge, one of the last successful examples of a traditional R&B standby: the vocal group.
The results of these collaborations are frequently impressive. It’s hard to imagine Ty’s competitors pulling off “Straight Up,” a Teddy Pendergrass-like ballad coated in strings and swaddled in funk. Babyface transforms Ty into a street-folk artist ready for a strummy campfire singalong—the combination of acoustic guitar and string section is reminiscent of Bill Withers, if Withers sang lines like, Big kush, long money/ Bad chicks, real niggas here with me.
The bold production isn’t the only surprising thing about “Straight Up” and “Solid:” both are muted in their embrace of debauchery, as is most of the album. “Horses In The Stable” asserts Ty’s right to a polyamorous love life, but it sounds bluesy and glum. “Credit” plays as a male version of Ann Peebles’ “Give Me Some Credit,” from 1969: he’s trying the best he can, and he doesn’t smoke weed when he’s over at his girlfriend’s mother’s place, so how about a little respect? While “Know Ya” reprises the scenario from Ty’s 2013 hit, “Paranoid,” where two of his many tryst partners almost meet, here the chorus laments, I didn’t even get to know ya!
On the album’s second half, Ty is way more excited by all the sex. The songs are accordingly more uptempo, too. “Only Right” is one of two Free TC beats made by DJ Mustard, the most dancefloor-friendly beat-maker in hip-hop, and “Bring It Out Of Me,” might as well be the third. (It’s actually produced by the Norwegian duo Stargate, who also imitated Mustard on Tinashe’s “All Hands On Deck.”) Ty could start an entire side career as a male house music vocalist, though the uptempo tracks on Free TC inevitably suffer in comparison to “Paranoid,” which achieved an impressive mix of prickly minimalism and detailed, opulent vocal arrangement.
R. Kelly himself shows up on the album’s penultimate song, “Actress,” another subdued sex ballad. Next to Ty, Kelly sounds surprisingly two-dimensional and inert. “Actress” represents a crowning of sorts, and with Free TC, Ty shoulders the burden of keeping R&B safe for full voices. The success of MCs who favor a husky, melodic delivery (Future, Fetty Wap) suggests that listeners are clamoring for diverse approaches to singing. But this shouldn't be limited to hip-hop: vocal variety is one of the things that helped make R&B great in the first place.