The gulf between exquisitely realized music and unapologetically crass lyrics is one that fans of Ty Dolla $ign have been forced to reconcile going all the way back to the L.A. singer’s earliest releases in 2011. That divide hasn’t gotten any slimmer in the intervening years, and it remains Grand Canyon-esque on his major-label debut – a record that can elicit a joyful head nod and a repulsed wince at the same time.
Free TC, dedicated to Dolla $ign’s currently incarcerated brother, marries a diverse range of earworm-level hooks and genre-bridging rhythms to uncomfortably base themes. On “Horses in the Stable,” he equates a staggering number of international hookups to a prized equestrian collection. On “Actress,” he and R. Kelly, who more or less invented this pervy lane, rhapsodize about an unnamed female companion in off-putting detail: “We all off in this bitch, and I’m all off in that ass/I’m way past the speed limit, yeah I’m driving it fast,” Dolla $ign brusquely declares. It’s enough to make you wonder if his talents are being misspent – at least until you come across a song like the eight-minute epic “Miracle/Whatever.” By the time the tune hits its Frampton Comes Alive talk-box climax and its magisterial full orchestra coda, you can’t help but lose yourself in the sheer splendor.
Beyond its role as a showcase for Dolla $ign’s outsized melodic skills and sexual braggadocio, Free TC is also a who’s-who of big name and up-and-coming rap and R&B talent. Kendrick Lamar appears to tremendous effect on the brooding album opener “L.A.,” Babyface does a star turn on the acoustic guitar-driven “Solid,” and Future brings his one-of-a-kind charisma to the trap banger “Blasé.” Sadly, Kanye West’s 808s & Heartbreak-style singing on “Guard Down,” which also features Diddy, comes across as undercooked. It’s a rare moment when the combined effect of a major name’s star power and Dolla $ign’s own skills can’t carry the day.