In 2015, Bryson Tiller reluctantly uploaded a song called “Don’t” to his SoundCloud and all but broke the internet, with millions of streams rolling in within just a few months for a single he’d made at home. That same year, he released his debut album, Trapsoul, making him one of the most popular artists in R&B. “I guess I didn’t even realize it until, like, later on in my career,” says Tiller, 28. “Shoutout to all the R&B artists doing it and making it their own.”
Today, on a Zoom call from Los Angeles, Tiller’s circumstances are far from the same as they were back then. No more part-time job at Papa John’s or sleeping in his ‘04 Audi, but a platinum plaque for his debut album and equal footing with some of his favorite artists. Yet his calm, humble demeanor remains the same, as does the inspiration that flows through his most recent album, Anniversary, released last fall for the five-year birthday of his debut (and out now in an expanded deluxe edition). Anniversary is Tiller at his sharpest since Trapsoul: decisive and confident in each note and melody placed over soulful, sample-filled instrumentals, with the songwriting skills that back up his nickname of “Pen Griffey” fully evident.
The concept of releasing an anniversary project for Trapsoul came to him during a drive in Tiller’s hometown of Louisville, where he was coming from a deposition in a legal case that brought back memories of his early career. “[Lawyers] were showing me all the documents, emails and stuff, and I was like ‘Wow, it’s been four or five years since that moment,'” he recalls. “Until this day, people still hit me up about that project. So I was like, ‘You know what, I am going to make a little bit of a thank you project to the fans that supported me and believed in me when I was just doing me.'”
Trapsoul got its title from the mix of genres that Tiller brought together, taking the popular flows and cadences of modern trap music when needed but relying mostly on the melodies and sentiments of classic soul music. He gave fans the vulnerability and emotion of R&B on tracks like “Exchange” and “The Sequence,” mixed with punchy bars and flat-out rap verses on tracks like “Rambo” and “502 Come Up.” “For me, ‘trapsoul’ being the genre, I just try to embody that,” he says. “You never know what to expect. I might be playful singing, then throw a rap verse in there — just because that’s how I make music, growing up and having fun.”
This style wasn’t something unheard of before Trapsoul; Tiller gave credit to Nelly, Drake, and the many artists who have blended melody and rap together. His other big R&B inspirations early on included Bow Wow, Omarion, and The-Dream, and Lil Wayne is the artist most responsible for Tiller becoming a fan of rap music and even attempting it on his own. He’s continued to learn from Jay-Z’s lyricism and Kanye West’s approach to full-length album-making on projects like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which he’s grown to appreciate recently. “I’ve never even really had the pleasure to listen to MBTDF straight through until my boy put me on,” says Tiller. “It’s like a movie the whole way through.”
Today, Tiller is the biggest artist from his Kentucky hometown, and he’s paved the way for newer acts like Jack Harlow. At the time when he set out, Louisville locals like Static Major and Nappy Roots showed him that it was possible to rise from the same soil with the soothing, smooth sound that he believes is his city’s signature. Trying to develop his own spin on that sound was a challenge early in his career, though: He remembers running into engineers who couldn’t record and mix the vocals to his standard, so eventually he learned how to record himself.
When he recorded Anniversary last year, the passage of time was a major theme for Tiller, who had seen three years go by since his previous studio album, True to Self. He thought back to the release of Trapsoul in 2015, and the amount of time he’d spent on the road afterward. “I was so busy touring, and learning how to be a performer, because I had never performed before,” he says. “At that time, I was really doubting myself. That’s all I did every day, speaking negativity into my reality. Just having that mindset is what held me back for so long. I’ve been standing in my own way.”
He says that lack of motivation often kept him from releasing new music in the past. “I was depressed,” he says. “Really downing myself, and I didn’t believe in myself. I definitely wasn’t inspired the past three or four years.” Thinking about the approaching anniversary of his debut, he awakened that same feeling, pulling up old beats from the archive and revisiting ideas that he hadn’t finished for past projects, like “Outta Time,” which features an appearance from Drake. On “Outta Time,” Drake and Tiller deliver verses aligned with the album’s concept, talking about a relationship that can’t be fixed due to time running out.
“Drake sent me the song a minute ago, and I remember being like, ‘This is incredible, you sound great on it.’ But at the time, I wasn’t really in a zone to finish the song,” says Tiller. “So when I was finishing the album, me and my manager Neil [Dominique] was talking. It only makes sense Drake is part of the Anniversary, considering the fact that he was gonna be on Trapsoul, as a surprise feature for the fans, but that didn’t happen, obviously. So I reached out to him, and we made it happen.”
When it comes to the process of making an album, Tiller creates a playlist in FL Studio to make sure the album entertains him all the way through. For this album, he wanted beats that were reminiscent of Trapsoul, a soundtrack that you drive into in the fall as the leaves are changing. Production from Noah “40” Shebib, Teddy Walton, Dpat, and others helped execute that. But Tiller’s trademark trapsoul sound is only one side of the music that he wants to create. On his upcoming projects, he wants to explore genres like pop and hip-hop further and continue to knock down genre-boxing. “I really love and appreciate genre-bending artists,” says Tiller. “They can do whatever the hell they want. You don’t know what genre to put them in.”
Outside of music, Tiller is known as an avid gamer, and he’s spent much of his quarantine playing video games. If he ever moves on from his current career, he’d like to go to school to learn how to design games inspired by his favorite games growing up. For now, though, he’s fully invested in music, with a lot in the vault and an openness to collaborating with “whoever you can think of that is willing to get a verse from me.”
The best part, for Tiller, is being back at a place where music is fun and not just a job. “While I’m here and living and breathing, I want to make as much music as I possibly can,” he says. “Don’t don’t do it until you want to quit — do it until you’re done.”