November 29, 2015

Test Spins: Ty Dolla $ign — Free TC

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There are two kinds of R&B sex jams: those in which the singer seems actually to like the women he sings about and those in which he doesn’t. Unfortunately, Ty Dolla $ign remains a member of the second group. This album, despite its personal touches about Ty’s family, is mostly about racking up as many bitches as possible, and that prevents Ty from ascending to the artistic heights of more inclusive, friendly singers like Frank Ocean and D’Angelo. Yet, Free TC has a lovely orchestral sound, and Ty proves a charismatic and talented singer. Though marred by weak tracks, there’s the skeleton of a great project in here.

Free TC has two themes. The first is familial sadness over the conditions of inner-city LA, and for the imprisonment of Ty’s brother Big TC. The second is Ty’s apparently action-packed sex life. At times, these sentiments are an odd match with each other. For instance, Ty follows his panoramic opener “LA” — which deals with survival in a maad city — with “Saved,” which lays out the mission statement for most of the album: “Dolla sign’ll fuck, but he won’t date her.” Eventually, the knuckle-dragging misogyny wears thin. Ty lacks the female-friendly openness and sex-positive attitude of, say, Miguel. Cuts like “Horses In The Stable,” while musically strong, are marred by their lyrics — the titular horses, of course, referring to Ty’s women, whom he “can ride any time.”

This dichotomy is perhaps best summed up by “Miracle/Whenever,” the epic eight-minute jam around which the album is built. The first half of the track is about the miracle of simply being alive in a violent city, and it features a showstopping verse recorded from jail by Ty’s imprisoned brother. Midway through, the track dramatically switches gears. It seems to ascend, built around a gospel choir and Ty’s lover-man falsetto, and returns to Ty’s favorite theme: getting busy wherever, whenever. The lyrical contradictions inherent to the album are built right into this track.

So, too, is “Miracle/Whenever” representative of the warm, complex sound that comprises the best parts of Free TC. The beats on the first half of this album layer strings, massed choral vocals, acoustic guitars and vocal samples into huge walls of sound. These tracks are mostly great. “Straight Up” moves at a languid pace, pitting Ty’s syrupy tenor against choral “la-la-las” and orchestral touches. Even better is “Solid,” in which Ty’s melody is matched by an acoustic guitar underneath. This is lovely, catchy and thoroughly listenable R&B.

Had Ty produced an entire album around this aesthetic, Free TC might have been stronger, but stylistically it’s all over the map. The second half of the album is dedicated to transparent bids for radio plays, and these songs veer from sound to sound. “Bring It Out of Me” sounds like trap-influenced EDM, and the dark Moog bassline on “When I See Ya” is a far cry from the pleasant, expansive R&B around which the album is built. These tracks are filled with features designed to maximize mass-market appeal, but Ty fails to get the most out of his guest artists. Future’s hook on “Blasé” is, for lack of a better word, stupid, and Fetty Wap, Wiz Khalifa and R. Kelly all stop by without making much of an impression. Bigger names like Kanye and Diddy are featured on “Guard Down”, but prove irrelevant at best.

Free TC has the feel of a project to which more and more was added until its original intent was compromised. Ty’s take on the prison-industrial complex comes from a personal and emotionally effective place, and despite the lyrics his sex jams are melodic and well-written. But the radio singles on this album sound unlike the tracks on the first side, and they’re worse. The beats, too, seem to have been built like wedding cakes, adding layer upon layer to attempt to subdue the listener through sheer excess. Ty himself is a charismatic frontman and a gifted vocalist, with potential star power. His future projects should involve both a narrowing and a broadening: Sonically, his focus should be narrowed to the orchestral R&B he does best, and lyrically, he must expand beyond his “All we do is fuck when I see you” ethos. But despite its flaws, Free TC is an agreeable and listener-friendly experience — at its best moments, the sound of a man transmuting his brotherly grief and voracious sexual appetite into glimmering, symphonic pop.

Max Van Zile is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at mfv23@cornell.edu.

One thought on “Test Spins: Ty Dolla $ign — Free TC

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