Ty Dolla $ign Beach House 3

[Atlantic; 2017]

Rating: 4.5/5

Styles: rhythm, blues, Los Angeles
Others: Jeremih, Big TC

I had a hell of a nap to this record while on a plane to warmer climes. It’s understandable if that sounds like a dig, but it’s not meant that way. Effortless integration with an elevator ride down and back up the spectrum of consciousness (at cruising altitude, no less!) is a triumph of album structure and evidences total mastery of aural relaxation. For an album called Beach House 3, there is no higher aspiration.

During your stay at the beach house, there’s never any question that it’s Ty Dolla $ign’s place. He’s got a voice unlike any other, capable of hitting most of the notes that the genre requires but all the more notable for the rasping imperfections that sets it apart. The production is nearly as distinctive, reconciling cabana guitar lines and L.A. rap bass lines in ways that somehow remain endlessly novel. If his thematic concerns are somewhat pedestrian, it’s hardly noticeable; it’s difficult to overstate what a recognizable voice and persona can do to discern a star among the somewhat flat landscape of modern R&B masculinity. Before he had a catalog of hits to provide instant recognizability, Dolla $ign’s efforts to stand out revolved in part around absolutely filthy lyrical content; while “Droptop in the Rain” is certainly a standout, it’s encouraging to see Beach House 3 succeed despite its relative tameness, if only for the sake of the commercial viability Ty deserves.

In the streaming era, no other genre has fallen prey to singles-oriented consumption to the extent of R&B. Too often compartmentalized to the bedroom, it’s a genre for which many listeners see only a single purpose; a context out of which it might as well not exist and within which individual and distinct artistry is interchangeable. While this paradigm remains firmly entrenched, Beach House 3 provides a compelling counter-argument; the album is wrought with potential hits, but a single listen straight through renders the idea of searching and pecking among the tracklist unthinkable. Simply put, the album flows. Even the numerous interludes, often a symptom of a bloated tracklist, serve dual musical and transitional purposes. Each seamlessly accompanies the tracks that it bridges and at times even elevates them; despite its leap into unfamiliar EDM territory, “Side Effects” sticks the landing due in no small part to the preceding “Famous Amy” interlude setting the stage appropriately.

While no doubt remains that Ty is able to carry an album from a songwriting standpoint, the album is considerably improved by the inclusion of the full spectrum of R&B features, all of whom absolutely came to play. This is the downside of unmistakability; Dolla $ign’s voice is wonderful, but so individualized as to be limited in terms of range both emotional and vocal. Nearly every guest spot operates comfortably within the world that Dolla $ign inhabits, providing a counterpoint without sounding out of place. This may be no great feat for Dolla’s frequent collaborators Jeremih and YG, but to reach that same harmonious co-existence alongside Swae Lee or Damian Marley is a remarkable achievement.

The distinction has been meaningless for years, but for old times’ sake: Beach House 3 is every bit an album. It displays the twin virtues of suitability for radio play and a vastly enhanced full-album listening experience, and yet by dint of its genre, it seems to run into something of a relatively low commercial and critical ceiling. Ty Dolla $ign is famous, sure, but for what? By and large, his solo hits exist in a vacuum independent of any specific release, and more often than not, he’s remembered for memorable performances on other artists’ songs. Combined with meager first-week sales, this raises a difficult question: what exactly would Dolla $ign have to do to truly break through? Is anyone interested in celebrating a male R&B star who skews any more traditional than, say, Frank Ocean? Beach House 3 is a strong, strong effort: universally pleasant in the same way as its antecedents, but given a thorough sonic update so as to keep pace with modernity. Why, then, does it feel like further acclaim is beyond Dolla $ign’s grasp barring a significant and fundamental alteration of his style? What could we ask of him that he hasn’t already achieved, and how do we justify that expectation in direct contrast to the genre’s history? Who are we to decide that the traditionalist has fallen by the wayside?

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