How Ty Dolla $ign Became Hip-Hop’s Go-To Feature-Killer

Ty Dolla $ign is a cheat code.
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The first time the world heard Ty Dolla $ign, we had no idea we heard Ty Dolla $ign.

Nine years ago this July, the bouncy and charmingly simplistic “Toot It and Boot It” helped launch three of the decade’s most successful and sustained careers: YG, Mustard, and Ty Dolla $ign. Each of these artists has scarcely left the hip-hop charts or our consciousness since, but only YG, the song’s lead artist, was credited on “Toot It and Boot It.” Consequently, as YG’s career took off, the man responsible for the song’s infectious earworm of a hook remained anonymous.

As it turned out, “Toot It and Boot It” was a fitting entry for an artist who has become a star almost entirely based on his reputation as a feature-killer. Ty Dolla $ign occupies a unique position in the industry, possessing all the characteristics of a mainstream heavyweight—an instantly recognizable voice and style, working relationships with nearly all of the biggest names in music, and a track record of chart success—without ever becoming a major headlining act himself.

I cringe at the unfounded insinuation Ty is only a feature artist—I’ll go to my grave singing the praises of Free TC and Beach House 3—but there’s no denying that the 34-year-old, born Tyrone William Griffin Jr., has a special gift for collaboration.

Since his run as a hired gun began in earnest in 2016 with an appearance on Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home,” Ty has contributed credited vocals on nearly 50 records. He’s sprinkled slithering background vocals throughout brooding R&B cuts (including Drake’s “Jaded” and 6LACK’s “Switch”), significantly improving each song without overtaking the lead artist; he’s lent cresting, show-stopping verses to hits like Drizzy’s “After Dark” and Kehlani’s “Nights Like This”; he’s gifted instant-classic hooks to numerous artists, like 2 Chainz ("Girl's Best Friend"), ScHoolboy Q ("Lies") and Vince Staples ("Feels Like Summer"). He’s also out-and-out saved otherwise forgettable or gag-inducing tracks. (It remains unclear if his appearance on Bhad Bhabie’s “Trust Me” was mandated as court-ordered community service.)

Ty Dolla $ign is a cheat code. Everyone from Kanye to Beyoncé, to the late, great, Mac Miller has called Ty to unlock a song’s ultimate potential. He’s the music industry’s favorite seasoning, kept close by for convenient and frequent flavoring.

Perhaps the peak of Ty’s career as a collaborator—the moment that bottles the essence of his guest-spot greatness—is his guest turn on Post Malone’s No. 1 smash “Psycho.”

Malone’s “Psycho” dominated the summer of 2018, thanks to his cyclically melodic hook and Louis Bell’s lush, soothing instrumental, but it’s Ty’s textured vocals that make it a pop-rap masterpiece. His verse begins with the same lyrical fare as Post’s, but there’s an immediate tonal shift in the track. Ty sounds like a real human person with real human emotions, even when indulging in frivolity like drop-top Chevys and pinky rings.

Then, with just seven seconds remaining his verse, the beat hollows out behind him, and Ty transforms the entire track with one line: “Girl, you look beautiful tonight.”

If you know the song, you just replayed that elongated “beautiful” in your head. A minute later, the song ends, and you’re still thinking about his contribution. “Psycho” belonged to Ty, and to everyone for whom it soundtracked a summer night’s first date.

Since that crowning moment, Ty Dolla $ign has ratcheted up the pace and quality of his feature work. In the past month alone, Megan Thee Stallion recruited Ty to help capitalize on her Hot Girl Summer movement, and Dreamville called on him to bring a veteran R&B presence to “Got Me” alongside newly-minted star Ari Lennox. Mustard did the same by pairing Ty with Ella Mai on “Surface.” YBN Cordae recruited him for an uplifting Ted Talk-esque rap verse on “Way Back Home,” while dvsn and Big Sean used his vocals and ad-libs, respectively, as tasteful flourishes on newly-released singles “Miss Me?” and “Single Again.”

It’s this kind of uncredited background work that defines Ty as a rare breed of collaborator. He’s undisputedly more recognizable than OVO duo dvsn; he has every right to demand Sean lists his name as a guest feature. And yet, an artist who topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart a year ago is willing to play the background for his contemporaries. The gesture is as extraordinary as his Hennessy-soaked vocals.

Ty’s range and prolificness are unmatched, but his ubiquitous presence every New Music Friday is the result of the vitality he brings to his collaborations. Ty can infuse joy and pathos into any track. He’s a natural-born feature-killer. No one does it better.

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