Been Real Ever Since: Bryson Tiller

The future of R&B is doing it on his own.

All careers need an origin myth. Bryson Tiller, on the first night of two sold-out shows at Webster Hall, told his. One involved legendary producer Timbaland reaching out to him; the other involved rap’s reigning king, Drake. Where many might’ve jumped at the chance to hop into Drake’s inner circle, Tiller met with the Canadian and decided to keep it pushing without the OVO co-sign. Drake followed Tiller on Twitter, they broke bread, but Tiller wasn’t about to see credits that read “Drake (feat. Bryson Tiller).” The hundreds of fans screaming along with his lyrics at Webster Hall on a Monday night proved that the decision paid off — he can capably do this without a marquee name pegged to his.

Often Drake seeks artists that fit within, or can be consumed by, his own dark mix of rap and R&B, and Tiller fits well within the lineage of The Weeknd, PartyNextDoor, and Majid Jordan. He is a singer under dim lights and a rapper when the beat sounds right, which on record he toggles between with relative ease, and when live, gleefully so. His compact hourlong show showed him never losing control of either mode.

He stalked the stage performing “Rambo” as if he were performing his big crossover single and not a deep cut. He imitated gunshots with the lights triggering in sequence, which gave off the appearance of an aggressive rap, not R&B, performance. On his bona fide hit, “Exchange,” he gave himself to the song, but the crowd was so vested in the lyrics that once he got to the kicker (“I was scrolling through the ‘gram / I had to follow you”), Tiller was seemingly caught off guard at how the crowd chanted every word.

Tiller wasn’t keen on introductions, he wasn’t there to explain or give much context, save for with “Sorry Not Sorry,” about exes being suddenly interested again now that he’d made a name. The sentiment came across as petty, but that old duplicitous-women story line is so normalized we hardly notice it; desperate women are an easy metric of a man’s fame, right? Given how vested Tiller’s music is in his own emotions, his songs feel coldly one-sided; the women in his songs feel like projections, not real women. “Sorry Not Sorry” is hardly the only song that takes on the most uncharitable attitudes of Drake and J. Cole’s views on women. The difference is there’s no faux-nice-guy-ism here on Tiller’s tracks — just bitterness toward past partners and relationships. His undeniable potency as an artist is underscored by an equally undeniable ugliness.

Even if Tiller passed on Drake’s advances, the male rap and R&B world still bends to Drake's whims. That’s been the norm for the last few years. Even if Kanye West makes noise and can grab the mainstream’s attention with a single tweet, it’s Drake whose influence flows from the radio down to the most obscure Soundcloud pages. Still, Tiller has already turned Internet buzz into two Top 40 hits without a guest-verse boost, with no big names gracing the stage. If Drake and Kanye are obsessed with their biters and clones, Tiller can find his success with credits simply reading “Bryson Tiller.”

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