Bryson Tiller seems like a great guy. He posts candid photos of his first parent-teacher conference and helping out at lemonade stands. His everyman wardrobe is relatable — he famously admitted to shopping at H&M — to the point where it seemed like every twenty-something with one too many breakup stories tried to emulate his style in 2016 (dad hat, flannel, factory ripped jeans). Regularly, he’ll open up to fans about his struggles with mental health and self-doubt.
That’s Bryson Tiller, the man. Bryson Tiller, the character at the center of his 2015 debut, Trapsoul, is something altogether different. This guy is stunted, bitter and detached. A part-time Papa John’s employee, he rarely learns from his mistakes. He cheats and asks for forgiveness later. Taunts to his lover’s girlfriends are interspersed between apologies. In spite of this potentially off-putting character — or maybe because of it — Tiller has thrived since.
Trapsoul is best described as pettiness incarnate. And, judging by its double platinum certification, it struck a chord. The understated genius of Tiller’s first studio album is the way he recontextualized R&B away from a game of wish fulfillment and toward documenting an regular-seeming protagonist, albeit with dark quirks as specific as those you’d find on a better-than-average sitcom.
You can look at Trapsoul as the musical equivalent of Seinfeld’s notorious series finale, where Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine are forced to watch the depravity of their on-screen existence play before them in court. On “Let Em’ Know,” Tiller tells a woman, “I feel like my new bitch was just your apprentice.” A couple of bars later he doubles down: “I’ll never find no one like you and I should have listened/Who you fucking with now, is that any of my business?” The entire verse is a plot synopsis gone awry, a character expressing regrets for a mistake they keep making, and one who sounds like a sociopath in the process.
During “Exchange,” Bryson spins a story about trying to return to a past lover. He sweetly implores the Lord to “please save her for me, do this one favor for me” and admits he’s had to change his “player ways,” because of complications. On the hook, Tiller asks for his lover to “give me all of you in exchange for me,” making the idea of a relationship seem like a transaction — take a penny, leave a penny.
Trapsoul’s jumping-the-shark moment is “Ten Nine Fourteen.” In three minutes, Tiller spins a story about taking care of his daughter, the disappointment of a potential Timbaland deal gone nowhere, the high of Drake’s recognition and his newfound ability to stunt on the “cool kids” from high school. Instead of purely basking in the moment of his success, he instead proclaims, “My baby mama’s mama can’t say shit to me now/What did she do wrong? She better figure it out.” It’s a moment of bitter defiance that doesn’t come off well.
Trapsoul arrived in the wake of a new Drake era. That same year, If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late pivoted Aubrey Graham away from his more sensitive inclinations, styling him instead as a ruthless mafioso type. Tiller’s breakout hit, “Don’t.” rushed to fill the lane that Drake had left unoccupied. Everything from the song’s melodies to its Houston-indebted screwed and chopped effects were inspired by Drake’s 2011 breakthrough Take Care. However, while Drake struggled for years learning to merge his growing talent as a rapper with his burgeoning gift as a singer, Bryson arrived fully formed. While Drake rapped better than he sang, Tiller was good enough at each to make classifying him unnecessary. Other suitors followed him into that void (looking at you, Tory Lanez and 6LACK), but Tiller filled the role best.
Bryson’s debut perfected a blueprint for R&B at the advent of the streaming era (Tiller benefited from a close promotional relationship with Apple Music). Take the blunt effectiveness of rap, merge it with the accessible nature of R&B and set it over a classic sample. Songs ranging from K.P. and Envyi’s “Swing My Way” to Jodeci’s “Alone” to the music from Street Fighter II provide the soundtrack to Trapsoul, nuggets of nostalgia meant to ingratiate new and jaded listeners alike. Today, singers like Ella Mai, H.E.R. and Brent Faiyaz are creating strains of R&B that tap into the past to say what they want about the present. Syd has directly credited Tiller with inspiring the 808s-based sound of her 2017 solo debut, Fin. Some of these artists sound more like Bryson than others, but they all show that Trapsoul‘s painfully of-the-moment music has had an influence beyond his own career.
Trapsoul is about a man on the verge of fame, trying his best to change into something better within an industry that doesn’t necessarily care if he does. By the project’s closer, the man also known as Pen Griffey admits, “I’ve gotta right my wrongs/With you is where I belong.” It isn’t clear if Tiller is forgiven at that moment, but in the end it doesn’t really matter, either.