Rollie Pemberton (Cadence Weapon) Talks Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC

With great skill and exceptional attention to detail, Ty Dolla $ign has made the transition from mixtape fixture to major label artist.

On 2012’s Beach House mixtape, Ty Dolla $ign presented himself as a new artist in the mold of The-Dream, the Weeknd and PartyNextDoor: a genre-blurring, foulmouthed R&B singer willing to go further sonically and lyrically than the generation that came before him. Following a few more mixtapes and a pair of smash radio hits in 2013’s “Paranoid” and 2014’s “Or Nah,” Ty Dolla $ign has resurfaced with his major label debut, Free TC, a dynamic, surprisingly restrained statement that refines his best qualities without dulling what made him stand out in the first place.

Ty Dolla $ign’s key attribute is his voice. It’s raspy but trained, an acrobatic trill that is more than capable of showy improvisation but mostly skids around in a nebulous space between singing and rapping. Still, he has a rich, expressive vocal range, alternating between insistent chants, staccato raps and all-out crooning. It’s that same versatility that’s allowed him to become a notable behind-the-scenes songwriter for Chris Brown, Trey Songz and Kanye West, and it serves him well throughout this album. On songs such as “Know Ya” and “Sitting Pretty,” he cleverly plays with pace and negative space with his flow, confidently weaving his words around the beat and nimbly switching between different half-time and double-time delivery styles during the course of a single verse.

The production value of Free TC easily outstrips that of his earlier releases. As a member of D.R.U.G.S., Ty is involved in the production throughout the album, along with many in-demand producers, including Metro Boomin, London on da Track, Hit-Boy and DJ Mustard. Strings, horns and other live instruments are in the mix, making for a pleasing combination where contemporary trap production elements and orchestration co-exist — without being distracting or feeling like a stunt. For example, Metro Boomin’s beat for “Know Ya” begins with pizzicato strings and slowly builds to incorporate syncopated hi-hats, pitch-shifted kicks, elegiac piano and a string quartet that bobs and weaves around the programmed arrangement. Free TC’s use of symphony elements recalls Timbaland’s early 2000s production and Late Orchestration/808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye.

The tracks on Free TC are sprightly and well composed, with those aforementioned bouncy strings and multi-tracked vocals recalling a Los Angeles sound more in line with Brian Wilson than Dr. Dre. Country, gospel, trap, pop and ratchet production styles are all explored here with equal aplomb. There’s even an EDM track produced by Stargate, “Bring It out of Me,” where Ty Dolla $ign holds his own on one of the Norwegian songwriting duo’s big-room house tracks. “Finale” is a strange, hypnotic collaboration with Sa-Ra, a group of Los Angeles R&B oddballs who presaged the soul music imbued in today’s creative spirit on their 2007 album The Hollywood Recordings, which also served as a talent incubator for musicians including Ty and Thundercat.

With surprising guest turns from ’90s R&B vanguard artists Jagged Edge and Brandy, and collaborations with hip-hop royalty such as Kendrick Lamar, Diddy and Kanye West, Ty’s debut record gives us the sense that the industry at large is collectively guiding him out of the DatPiff wilderness and into mainstream legitimacy.

The most surprising of those collaborations is the guitar strumming of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, which forms the foundation of “Solid,” a pop-country diversion with crossover potential. This drumless, acoustic guitar-led single wouldn’t sound out of place on a Hootie & the Blowfish record — and there are echoes of Tracy Chapman and Terence Trent D’Arby here, a pair of musical touchstones that aren’t exactly the coolest reference points these days — yet I’m drawn back to it again and again. Ty’s gruff, cocky vocals sound surprisingly natural over the sparse arrangement.

This is what I wanted from Rihanna, Paul McCartney and Kanye West’s “FourFiveSeconds,” another openly cheesy pop crossover on which Ty Dolla $ign, among many others, has a songwriting credit. “Solid” revels in its own lameness, while perfectly distilling the edgy attitude and fish-out-of-water status of the lead artist, an approach that Kanye has applied winningly in the past (“All of the Lights,” “RoboCop”) but failed to do on his Rihanna/McCartney collaboration.

The album’s centerpiece is “Miracle/Wherever,” a track that provides a creative workaround for making music with an incarcerated musician. The first two verses and table-slapping percussion are sourced from a YouTube video, filmed in jail, of D-Loc and the titular Big TC, Ty Dolla $ign’s imprisoned younger brother. TC is currently serving a life sentence for a murder that Dolla $ign claims he didn’t commit. Phone conversations between the two of them are sprinkled throughout the album as well. The epic horns, angelic layered ad libs and sumptuous strings that accompany their vocals make for an interesting juxtaposition when placed in the context of two brothers making a connection despite the barriers that society has placed between them.

Ty Dolla $ign is decidedly more tame on this album than he is on his mixtapes, eschewing vulgar specifics for a more varied lyrical approach. For example, “Guard Down” is a futuristic gospel belter on which he preaches to strippers and hustlers to remain focused: “Know you been working that body all night / But it’s 3 a.m. and we ’bout to go up again / […] Sister, don’t let your guard down.”

Toning things down is usually a sign of a compromise between the artist and the giant label putting up the cash for a big-ticket record. In so many previous cases of this phenomenon, it’s been problematic and the music suffers (compare fellow Taylor Gang members Juicy J and Wiz Khalifa’s mixtapes with their major label albums, for example). But on Free TC, the subtlety suits the broader scope of the music. Taking down the bluster has shifted focus onto Dolla $ign’s skill as a songwriter.

One of Dolla $ign’s spiritual predecessors is “Actress” guest vocalist R. Kelly, an artist whose all-encompassing involvement in the production and writing of his own music seems to be the template for Ty’s process. It’s rare to see this amount of attention to detail on the first studio album from a mixtape fixture. What’s even more rare is when that transition is done this tastefully.

Rollie Pemberton is rapper and producer Cadence Weapon. His albums Breaking Kayfabe and Hope in Dirt City were both shortlisted for the Polaris Music Prize. He served as Poet Laureate of Edmonton from 2009 to 2011. Find him on Twitter here.

 (photo credit: Coey Kerr)