His voice had the soulful texture of an R&B singer, but he sang earnestly of ratchets, bitches, and Benzes in a way that was far more reminiscent of a rap artist. I was used to R&B singers collaborating with rappers, even R&B singers rapping, but there was something unorthodox about Ty Dolla $ign's approach to the song “Ratchet In My Benz.” With Juicy J riding shotgun, the rapper most renowned for his ratchet tendencies, Ty Dolla introduced me to what my brother called Ratchet & Blues.
Beach House 2 was the mixtape that gave this particular genre a sound. The music was filthy but catchy, women were the center of all his love and loathing. Nothing new, but strangely alluring. He reminded me of Nate Dogg: a singer who could be lewd, salacious and misogynistic but still have people sing every word as if it were a sweet lullaby. There are skeezy lyrics—words only the dirtiest dirtbags would say to a woman—but they tend to get lost in the project’s overall ambiance. Nate had the voice and the G-Funk sound, but Ty$’s voice, along with his dreamy production, gave him a winning combination that balanced any shortcomings. All summer long, songs like “Paranoid,” “I Bet,” “Irie,” and “My Cabana” took over parties and conquered clubs.
Listen to Chris Brown's “Loyal” and you can hear Ty Dolla’s pawprints across every lyric; the sordid songwriting felt like much more akin to Beach House 2 than Fortune. It was a huge hit, putting Chris back in the clubs and announcing the arrival of a new hit songwriter in Ty$. The singer, songwriter, and producer felt like he was ready to take off, even bigger than his close collaborators YG and DJ Mustard. The industry felt like it was his for the taking, especially after the success of "Paranoid" and “Or Nah.” All that was left for Ty$ was to deliver the undeniable smash song that would push him to the next plateau.
Three years have gone by since the Beach House 2 mixtape and the arrival of Ty Dolla $ign. He's still one of the biggest singer/songwriters in contemporary R&B. His long-awaited, debut album Free TC wasn’t a commercial juggernaut, but critics and fans applauded the artistic growth displayed on the project. Singles "Blasé" and "Saved" have been certified Platinum and Gold, respectively. With R&B royalty like Jagged Edge, R. Kelly and BabyFace featured, he could’ve easily been overshadowed by the album's stellar lineup, but he is the vocal star of Free TC. He presented diversity without straying too far from his successful formula, mixing the album with records like “Horses In The Stables” and “Guard Down, “Blase” and “Solid,” and “Miracle/Wherever” and “Know Ya.” The album isn’t short of balance; there are many sides to Ty Dolla $ign and he’s one artist layered with influences. To label him a pony with one trick would overlook so much of what makes him an intriguing artist.
When Fetty Wap released “Trap Queen,” I thought of Ty$. Not because of the singing, nor the production, but Fetty’s lyrics seemed to be an offspring of Ty’s R&B. Selling drugs with your woman is romantic—dare I say Shakespearian—but also more likely to be sung by a rapper than singer. Just like Ty$ before him, Fetty is more of an anomaly that’s difficult to fit in a box. The rise of other singer/rappers like Bryson Tiller, PARTYNEXTDOOR and Tory Lanez are seeing success by bridging the two worlds seamlessly. The lane was once wide open, now feels far more clustered than it did three years ago. In both subject and style, Ty Dolla $ign is now sharing the spotlight with contemporaries that aren’t the same, but far from different. An ever-shifting artist in an ever-shifting terrain.
Ty$’s new project Campaign will be released on Friday, and five tracks have surfaced thus far. The Future-assisted “Campaign” is a trap banger, but it feels more fitting for a Future mixtape than a Dolla $ign tape. Travis Scott appears on “3 Wayz,” a catchy single and one that I’m surprised isn’t much bigger, but it feels like Ty entering Travis' soundscape instead of the other way around. “Zaddy” is the most Ty$-esque single yet. It’s the risqué Dolla $ign over elegant, mid-tempo production driven by a soulful sample loop. It’s good, but also doesn’t feel like his next big hit.
My favorite effort from the project so far, “Stealing,” is his most unconventional. Lyrically, there’s nothing strange or unusual about hearing Ty Dolla sing about breaking hearts and stealing sauce from bitches. The surprise comes from the production—a strumming acoustic guitar and the most beautiful strings complete the composition. This is the same man who spent $60,000 for strings on his last album, so it isn’t that shocking, but hearing him singing outside the accustomed soundscape is always a bit surprising. Four songs, four different sounds; it's hard to understand where Ty$ is heading. He doesn't seem to be suffering from an identity crisis, but I do wonder how he would like to be labeled?
I have no doubt that Ty Dolla $ign will continue to be successful in this industry, but how successful? Will he be an artist that caters to a niche audience or will he release the home run that will take him to a global level?
Look at who he has worked with—Kanye and Lupe, Kendrick and Nick Jonas, Major Lazer and Charli XCX. He’s far from restricted in this business. He’s leaps and bounds beyond the position he was when “Toot It & Boot It” dropped in 2010. Ty Dolla might be more than Ratchet & Blues in 2016, but has his evolution affected the very reason that he gained attention?
It's possible that Campaign returns him to the spotlight as contemporary R&B's next big hitmaker. Or maybe Ty Dolla is something much more. He’s a rare artist, and anyone with his talent and versatility is hard to place in just one box.
That’s his gift and his curse.
By Yoh, aka Yoh $ Sign, aka @Yoh31.
Art Credit: Farrah Munro Designs