Earlier this month, the R&B singer Ty Dolla $ign stood in the middle of a small studio crammed with listeners in midtown Manhattan as his Beach House 3 album rumbled through the speakers. Flanked by two golden "$" balloons, he celebrated the new release by dragging on a joint, conducting an imaginary orchestra and singing with gusto. Occasionally he stopped the music to serve up brief comic asides: "I'm a crazy-ass scientist perfectionist weirdo."
But after the album finished playing, Ty turned serious. "If anyone still gives a shit about R&B, I wanted to show off on this shit," he declared. "I wanted to show that you could be on the radio and not have to hold back."
"In the beginning, when I first started, all of a sudden there was just no more R&B," Ty explains the day after the listening session, speaking over lunch at a Chinese restaurant inside an old church that used to house the famed Manhattan club Limelight. He had traded in the black fedora he wore the night before for an olive-green model and replaced his Gucci T-shirt with one paying tribute to Pink Floyd; in his hand was a freshly lit joint. "Remember when R&B used to be on the Hot 100? It just stopped. I felt like I had to dumb myself down a lot. I know a lot of people feel like that. There's a lot of people out there that can really sing, but you don't really hear them. That's fucked up."
"With this project," he continues, pivoting back to Beach House 3, due out Friday, "I sung my ass off. But it's still gonna be a mainstream vibe. That's all I'm trying to do: Make a lane for the singers."
As R&B's crooner-in-chief, Ty is uniquely positioned to accomplish this mission: During the past three years, he has taken over the genre's mainstream with a combination of old-school vocal firepower, serious melodic savvy and up-to-date taste in spine-cracking beats. Many of his peers have struggled to crack the airwaves in recent years, but last week Ty appeared four times in the mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop airplay Top 40 as a lead or featured vocalist – more than any other singer or rapper – and racked up 26 million audience impressions, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
"He's the definition of rhythm and blues, it's that simple," says Chris Anokute, who tried to sign Ty to Island Def Jam in 2011; more recently, serving as the Senior VP of A&R for Epic Records, Anokute tapped Ty to sing on pop hits from Fifth Harmony and Zara Larsson. "R&B is a word a lot of people throw around – a lot of them don't have rhythm, and they don't have that blues."
"Right now, Ty is the best R&B singer, period," adds Compton rapper and frequent Ty collaborator YG. "Put that in bold."
Born Tyrone William Griffin Jr., the singer has an R&B pedigree: His father, Tyrone Sr., played in a later iteration of Lakeside, the SOLAR Records funk outfit that enjoyed hits in the late Seventies and the early Eighties. "He was always teaching me different things," Ty says. "Or he was on tour a lot, and when he would be on tour, I would break into his shit and learn. He would come back and hear my shit like, 'What the fuck? This little nigger's doing his shit!' I learned everything piece by piece. My homie who plays drums, he brought me to church. I'm like, 'I play bass, hook me up.' Any organist that came through – 'What's that chord?'"
"I just wanted to make the best songs," Ty continues. "If I don't have anybody, and it's just me in my back room, I can do it." His versatility is confirmed by DJ Mustard, the rap hitmaker who produced the beat for Ty's Top 40 smash "Paranoid." "He can play like seven instruments, he can sing, he can do anything," DJ Mustard says.
Ty's accumulation of knowledge paid off when he met YG and put together the song "Toot It and Boot It" based around a sample of Sixties pop group the Association. "That inspiration really came from the night before," Ty remembers. "[DJ] Mustard was at the crib, and we threw a kick-back. Mustard's DJ'ing and he played [sings D4L's 'Scotty']. It was super simple. ... The crib went crazy. So I went back the next day like, 'Let me do that vibe.' That with the sample reminded people of the G-Funk era, and we had the West Coast back."
Artful samples and interpolations subsequently became a hallmark of Ty's work. His breakout solo track, "My Cabana" from the Beach House mixtape, pulled the horns from Mint Condition's "Breakin' My Heart (Pretty Brown Eyes)"; "Straight Up," a highlight from his debut album Free TC, nodded to both Patrice Rushen and Jagged Edge; new single "Ex" borrows from 112's "Only You (Bad Boy Remix)." " got [their bass line] from the Seventies," Ty says. "Ain't nothin' new under the sun."
"Toot It and Boot It" also hinted at Ty's strengths as a singer. "[His voice] is heavy; his vibrato is raspy," says Jason "Poo Bear" Boyd, who co-wrote four songs on Beach House 3 in addition to hits for Justin Bieber and Usher. "That's really important now because a lot of people sound the same singing through Auto-Tune." "People with [Ty's] tone, you don't expect them to have a lot of range, but he has range," adds Sevyn Streeter, an R&B singer/songwriter who has collaborated with Ty multiple times. "Nobody sounds like Ty Dolla $ign."
As a result, he was soon in high demand as a featured vocalist, guesting on more than 20 songs in 2014 alone. He put out a steady string of solo releases as well – Beach House 2 included "Paranoid;" the Beach House EP contained "Or Nah," which went triple platinum without much radio support – before finally unveiling a solo album, Free TC, in 2015. But Free TC failed to spawn a major chart hit, and speaking about the LP now, Ty is slightly defensive. "It didn't sell platinum or anything, but it's still a classic fucking record, and if you don't know, you better ask somebody," he says. "It probably will go platinum."
When he started working on the follow-up, he decided to return to the concept of his Beach House series, which had proved successful in the past. "My goal was to move and get a beach house; I named the project that cause that's what I wanted in life," Ty says. "I look at it as a metaphor for a higher plane of excellence, where you meet your fucking goals and you get to show the homies: This is possible."
To focus on the new record, Ty had to start turning down feature requests. "A lot of people may be upset with me at the moment," he says. "Maybe people thought I went big on 'em or Hollywood, whatever term they want to use. I just had to take the time for Beach House 3." Ty stuck up for himself in other ways, too: When a collaborator offered him $200,000 cash on the spot for "Droptop in the Rain" – a salacious track with a beat so potent that listening-party attendees demanded the singer play it again – Ty turned him down. "I'm like, 'Nah, I need this,'" he recalls. "I'll give you another one though."
Beach House 3 reaches back to towering R&B documents like Usher's Confessions: It's both expansive and unified – Ty inserted five short segue pieces that he predicts will be "platinum interludes" – with multiple tracks that sound like potential hits in a variety of formats. "We have an alternative guitar record, a reggae record, a straight Top 40 record, a grimy strip club record," Boyd says. "Ty's limitless." "I'll get into some country shit soon, too," Ty adds.
Even more than the interludes, loving references to R&B history cement these disparate songs. "Message in a Bottle" takes a classic R&B form, the 6/8 ballad, and transposes it into a world where trap is king. "It's kind of thugged-out Musiq Soulchild," Ty says. He suggests "Dawsin's Breek," which features a beat from super producer Mike Will Made It, is "some Terrence Trent D'Arby, off-the-wall shit." He nestled an interpolation of Donell Jones' "Where I Wanna Be" into "Ex," and filled "Don't $leep" with throaty Seventies soul ad-libs. Libido-driven ballad "All the Time" may be his most impressive vocal showcase, full of what Ty fondly dubs "crazy runs and riffs."
"It seems like anybody can get on right now, just being honest," he says as he finishes his lunch and prepares to head to a meeting with Ebro, the star DJ for Hot 97 and Apple Music. "I want to make it a little more tough out here. We need to get back to that singin' shit."