R&B hitmaker Bryson Tiller nailed a winning combination on his debut 2015 single "Don't," draping his supple entreaties over a twitching, drowsy beat. That alluring blend powered his debut album, the platinum Trapsoul; it drove "Don't" and "Exchange" into the Top 40; and it created much anticipation for his second album, True to Self, due June 23rd
"I remember when it first started going to radio, people were saying, 'Oh, it's too slow,'" Tiller recalls of "Don't." "I'm just like, how? That is what's missing: There's no slow. Avant and Keke Wyatt's 'My First Love' [a 2000 cover of a 1983 hit for Rene & Angela], that song was slow. But it's a smash."
The era of "My First Love" looms large over True to Self. The liner notes for his upcoming LP pay homage to a list of formidable singers from that period – SWV, Tweet, 112, Changing Faces, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Brandy and Tamia – all of whom excelled at stately ballads. Times change, but according to Tiller, this vein of R&B remains a constant source of musical nourishment and creative rejuvenation. He sampled every one of those singers on his new record. "There's some stuff you hear and it holds you over until something else new comes out," Tiller explains. "Those songs actually make you feel something. That's why I love 1990s music so much."
Tiller spent 2016 playing sold-out shows in venues like New York City's Radio City Music Hall and worked steadily on his sophomore album. By October of 2016, he had a solid chunk of a new record completed – or so he thought. "I posted something on Instagram like, 'album almost done,'" Tiller says. "Then I met this producer named Nes, and the way he produces his beats just changed everything. So I started my whole album over."
Nes, from Bowling Green, Kentucky, two hours south of Tiller's hometown of Louisville, had a hand in nine of True to Self's 19 tracks. Before this gig, he was working on an assembly line at a Corvette plant. He found the time to track down Tiller's friend Rich Gretah, mentioned in Trapsoul's "502 Come Up," on Instagram. Nes sent Gretah three beats. "An hour later, I'm on the phone talking to Bryson on the assembly line," the producer remembers. Tiller suggests that he sensed a kinship as he listened to Nes' demos. "When he makes his beats, it feels exactly the same as how I would make a song," Tiller says.
The success of Trapsoul also meant that Tiller could collaborate with some of the most prominent beat-makers in hip-hop and R&B at the moment. True to Self features beats from T-Minus (Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj), Wondagurl (Jay Z, Rihanna), Allen Ritter (Rihanna, Kanye West) and Boi-1da (Kanye West, Drake). "There was one point I rented this house in Miami and had all these producers fly out – Vinylz, Boi-1da, Allen Ritter," Tiller says. "I just looked up and realized that I had the whole radio in my living room."
"Bryson's one of the most talented people I've ever worked with, period," Boi-1da asserts. The two men bonded over Dragon Ball Z and games of Mario Kart. "Of his generation, he's the guy, especially in R&B," Boi-1da continues. "He's one of those artists everybody is going to always wait on."
With help from his all-star coalition, Tiller crafted an album he characterizes as "more upbeat" than Trapsoul – his experience playing shows in front of large crowds taught him to change his approach. "The first time around, I had never performed before," Tiller points out. "I'd never been in a lot of clubs and heard how my music sounded in these venues." With a better understanding of the ways beats impact bodies in space, he made sure True to Self incorporated "different sounds to bring the energy back up." "I don't want it to be a long slow concert, dull and boring, so I've got a lot of upbeat production on this one," he adds.
But don't think Tiller is leaving the ballads behind in a mad rush for velocity; True to Self lead single "Something Tells Me" is a hair slower than "Don't." The week Tiller released the track, it was one of the most added songs at mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop radio – another gain for patience in pop.
Says Tiller, "I feel like R&B is getting back to where it should be."