When Bryson Tiller released his debut cult classic, T R A P S O U L, five years ago, he didn’t intend to become a superstar.
While the album was saturated with the heartbreak and sadness that became his calling card, the efforts behind his come-up were pure. He was a humble Papa John’s-employee-turned-R&B-star who used to sleep in his car, and his music was a means to an end. He wanted to have some money saved up for his daughter, and he wanted to afford basic cable. He was putting in “overtime” to secure his legacy and, as a result, had a bitter aversion to being famous. When celebrity status inevitably came knocking after T R A P S O U L’s explosive success, his resentment towards his popularity seeped into his music.
On True to Self, his tepid sophomore effort, he was bogged down by his indignation. “Lots of disrespect from those who used to be my friends, lot of checks to replace those who used to be friends,” he raps on “High Stakes.” “I don’t f*ck with you, what don’t you comprehend? Give a f*ck who I offend.” In hindsight, even Tiller himself acknowledged that his depression and bitterness kept the project from being what he wanted it to be.
But that was three years ago, and a lot has changed since then. He recently welcomed another daughter, and the murder of Breonna Taylor has thrust his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky, into the national spotlight.
On A N N I V E R S A R Y, the singer’s brief but satisfying third album, Tiller partially surrenders to his circumstances and substitutes discussions of petty heartbreaks for candid reflections on adulthood and his faith.
Sonically, A N N I V E R S A R Y is very much a follow-up to T R A P S O U L. The moody lo-fi “type beat” instrumentals sound as if they were pulled straight from the Soundcloud archives and refined (partially because they were). The album cover’s dark blue tint is indicative of the feeling behind these tracks. Songs like “I’m Ready for You” and “Things Change” sound as if they’re submerged underwater. The 808s are crisp and pop with urgency, the backing synths and murky vocal distortions are voluminous and all-consuming.
While the Tiller of past records has at times sounded swallowed by this aesthetic, his voice on A N N I V E R S A R Y pierces through with urgency, mostly because he knows exactly what he wants to say. “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a moving ode to Tiller’s late grandmother that offers some of his best songwriting. “I wish I believed when you told me you believed in me,” he says candidly. “I wish I could see in me what you seen.”
On “Timeless Interlude,” Tiller reflects on his own eventual death and hones in on the importance of his faith in 2020. It’s moments like this that paint Tiller as an artist who has spent the last five years growing into himself. He seems to embrace the trauma and heartbreak that he used to trivialize.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tiller record without some slick samples and some late night yearning. On A N N I V E R S A R Y, there remains plenty of both. “Inhale” leans heavily into a Mary J. Blige and SWV sample, and Tiller questions whether a relationship is beyond repair on “Outta Time.” Recruiting sad-boy Drake for the latter feels full circle for an artist who embodied the rapper’s “Marvin’s Room” swagger back in 2015.
But Tiller rarely vies for sympathy on A N N I V E R S A R Y and instead captures the collective shock that comes with merely existing in 2020. “Years go by, where we at right now?” Tiller sings over cosmic synths on “Years Go By.” “Thought we might be able to relax right now.”
Tiller is still R&B’s misunderstood introvert, but now he seems less preoccupied by being saved by a woman and is realizing (in full 2020 fashion) that we all are responsible for our own happiness.
A N N I V E R S A R Y