Bryson Tiller: Drake, Apple Music and the Making of a Trap-Soul Star

How industry forces converged around a Louisville SoundCloud sensation

After Bryson Tiller racked up huge play counts on SoundCloud, co-signs from Drake and Apple Music aided the Louisville singer-rapper's chart ascent. Credit: RoleXX

On October 9th, 2014, Bryson Tiller uploaded his brooding rap-R&B hybrid "Don't" to SoundCloud. By the time the singer-rapper released his debut mixtape, T R A P S O U L, earlier this month, that initial offering had been streamed more than 25 million times. The popularity of "Don't" rubbed off on the rest of Tiller's catalog: The eight other songs on the Louisville, Kentucky, artist's SoundCloud page have been streamed collectively another 25 million times.

Tiller's rapid rise — from a handful of listens to more than 50 million in under a year — is an increasingly common path for rappers and R&B singers. In 2014 alone, Dej Loaf, ILoveMakonnen and OG Maco started out as local figures and ended up as artists with national buzz. This year, Silento, Post Malone and Tiller followed a similar trail. All it takes is one track and millions of clicks, which eventually translate into a record deal and spins on traditional radio. Tiller signed with RCA in April, and "Don't" recently cracked Billboard's R&B/Hip-Hop airplay chart.

Long before listeners were enthralled by "Don't," 15-year-old Tiller (he's now 22) fell under the spell of Omarion. He learned recording by using a friend's studio. "I just started mimicking what I heard and singing along to it," he says. Last year, Tiller downloaded the beat for "Don't" from a website called SoundClick. "I didn't have any beats at all," he recalls. "My friends gave me some money to buy my studio equipment, and ['Don't'] was the first song I recorded with it. That was the last beat that I ever had to download."

You feel "Don't" immediately: The bass skulks in first, and Tiller enters not long after, singing conversationally, if not athletically. A dribble of percussion maintains a steady pitter-patter, shadowing his every move. "Don't" plays as an unusual sort of come-on: the singer calls out both the object of his desire — "girl, he only fucked you over 'cause you let him" — as well as her current beau, who is "killing the vibe." Unexpectedly, Tiller interpolates one of Mariah Carey's last great singles, "Shake It Off," and injects a "skrt!" that evokes both a car's breaks and the bawdy "skeet" ad-lib popularized by Lil Jon in the early 2000s.

When the singer wrote his breakthrough track in the summer of 2014, he actually imagined himself as the vibe-killer. "At the time I was going through some things in my relationship and wasn't doing my part," Tiller explains. "A lot of people think I'm playing boyfriend number two in the song, but that's actually not the case. I was just thinking: What if a boyfriend number two came into the picture and started trying to talk to my girl?"

"Don't" is emblematic of the sound that dominates contemporary R&B. This is somber, lyrically candid music, in which getting what you want doesn't sound much different from coming up short. The tracks are simultaneously sludgy but precise; the vocalists' delivery is frictionless and heavily indebted to Drake: any distinction between rapping and singing has dissolved. (The nomenclature overlaps too: Tiller dubbed his music "trap soul;" the Chicago MC Tree is a practitioner of "soul trap.")

The producer Sango, who contributed to T R A P S O U L, sees Tiller as the crucial next step in the evolution of the combination singer-MC with pop-crossover potential. "I'm waiting for an artist like him," Sango explains. "Nelly sung his hooks, but he rapped. But it wasn't like he was hitting notes. And he wasn't really talking about things; he was just making party music. Then you have 50 Cent. He was a little more serious in the lyrics, singing hooks, but he also wasn't hitting notes. Then you got Drake. Drake's actually hitting notes, but Drake is still trying to train his voice. Bryson has a more natural singing voice."

Tiller is working in a crowded field, and the popularity of "Don't" came with help from a few powerful advocates. "I was on SoundCloud mid-November of last year," says Tunji Balogun, the A&R rep who eventually signed Tiller to RCA. "I think I heard 'Don't' first. And I liked it a lot. I came back from my honeymoon in January of this year, and I was checking in on Bryson's stuff. I saw that Drake had followed him on Twitter, and I was like, 'Oh, shit, I need to reach out right now.' I didn't realize it was going to move that quickly." (Tiller uploaded his own version of Drake's "How Bout Now" to SoundCloud around that time.) This was the first of two boosts Tiller received from Drake. In June, a photo of the two artists surfaced on Instagram.

The Toronto MC wasn't the only one taking interest: Apple embraced Tiller as well. The singer was featured on iTunes' R&B and hip-hop pages early this year. "Don't" was also classified as a "heatseeker" on iTunes Radio starting in February. "I really have to give the credit to Carl Chery," hip-hop programmer at Apple Music, says Balogun. (The two men are friends.) "He was the one who saw [Tiller] early and convinced a lot of people at Apple that this kid was going to be something."

At the end of June, Apple launched Beats 1 Radio, which doubled down on iTunes Radio's commitment to Tiller. Each day, the DJ Zane Lowe unveils what is called a "World Record"; "Don't" became the second World Record in the program's history. The track also appeared in the "A-List R&B" playlist. Beats 1 later premiered another Tiller song, "Exchange," while Apple Music exclusively streamed the singer's mixtape a week before its release.

Apple's help extends beyond playlists (Balogun notes that Spotify also "put us on some cool playlists"). According to a source at Apple Music who helps shape the company's programming, Apple relied on "every piece of [its] ecosystem" to aid Tiller. This included support for the "Don't" video from "people in the marketing department at Beats by Dre." In September, Tiller was also featured in the "New Artist Spotlight" the same week as
T R A P S O U L went up for pre-order, giving him additional visibility. 

Despite the new-media trappings of Tiller's rise and the of-the-moment qualities of "Don't," his climb actually has many retro characteristics — in the past, RCA would have done the work that Apple Music just did for its rising star. Once Apple finds music it likes, its "ecosystem" gives the company a number of cross-promotional tools to promote sales, which occur at the iTunes store.

Tiller could be the first in a potential wave of artists picked by Apple Music. So far, Beats 1 has taken an active interest in young performers who have a buzzy Internet hit. During the station's first week, for example, D.R.A.M.'s "Cha Cha" and Boogie's "Oh My" received regular play. (Boogie reportedly signed with Interscope in August.)  Curation has been a central part of Apple Music's pitch to potential listeners — where else can you find music handpicked by Dr. Dre, Elton John and St. Vincent? The company also seems interested in curating a new generation of stars.

The 14 tracks on T R A P S O U L simmer at the same temperature as "Don't," with plenty of spirited shout-outs to Tiller's hometown of Louisville. As an MC, Tiller is blustery, if same-sounding; he is more compelling when he slips into his viscous mid-range. "Exchange," which debuted on Beats 1, plays as the sequel to "Don't" — now Tiller is trying to get back together with an ex, relying on a mixture of sweetness and swagger. "I hope she's waiting for me," he sings, before adding a mild taunt: "Everywhere she go, they playin' my song."

That statement has an element of truth to it — T R A P S O U L debuted at Number 11 on the Billboard 200, and "Don't" has been on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Chart for 13 weeks. When asked to explain Tiller's success, Sango describes it in terms of destiny: "Certain people are chosen," he says.
"[Tiller] is in this position for a reason."