Ty Dolla $ign Free TC

[Atlantic; 2015]

Styles: watered-down rachet, end of Mustard-wave, Best Buy rap and R&B
Others: Beach House, Beach House 2, Airplane Mode, Ketchup, 10 Summers

It seems like it was just yesterday when every culture under the sun — indie, hip-hop, acting, even ultimate fighting — proudly wore a “Free Weezy” t-shirt in support of the “best rapper alive,” Lil Wayne. But that was actually over five years ago, at a time when Wayne was serving a one-year sentence on Rikers Island. Since then, those ubiquitous “Free” rapper campaigns have greatly intensified, unifying likeminded individuals in their passion for music and, inadvertently, their views on the criminal justice system. So next time you’re shading the “Free Gucci” movement, remember, there’s a young Vince Staples hiding in plain sight ready to embarrass you. And with his debut album, Free TC, Ty Dolla $ign’s also campaigning for an incarcerated rapper — his younger brother, Big TC. Inspired by his life sentence, and innocence, according to Dolla $ign, the West Coast’s hooksmith strives to propel his addictive, carefree sound beyond nights of club-hopping and debauchery — but not without a few hedonistic pitstops to the bathroom stall.

There’s no denying that Ty Dolla $ign’s a venerable hitmaker in today’s ever-shifting music scene. Coupled with an intoxicating blend of R&B and rap that’s churned out some of the decade’s catchiest songs (“Toot It and Boot It,” “Paranoid,” “My Cabana,” “Stand For,” “Or Nah”) is his knack for melodic hooks and adept songwriting ability. He’s written for a slew of artists, from Chris Brown to Snoop Dogg, and earlier this year Dolla $ign even contributed to the global success of Rihanna’s crossover hit “FourFiveSeconds” — with high profile artists Kanye West and Paul McCartney, no less. Furthermore, he and frequent collaborator, producer DJ Mustard, would redefine the sonic contours of West Coast hip-hop’s landscape paved by the legendary Dr. Dre — one that’s equal parts fist-shaking and hip-swaying. But despite looking to set the world on fire with Free TC, his debut, Dolla $ign spreads himself too thin and mostly stumbles over his own lofty ambitions.

Still, you can’t exactly fault Ty Dolla $ign for being ambitious; after all, this is the year when rap got a new battery pack, producing releases like DS2 and To Pimp a Butterfly, and ultimately restoring its faith in the album format. By the same token, fellow R&B crooner The Weeknd released Beauty Behind the Madness and went from listless features to hugging pop star Taylor Swift on stage. But Free TC isn’t a bad album, per se — in fact, it’s just fine. It should come as no surprise, but perhaps it’s telling when the album’s highlight is a pair of Mustard-produced songs. But it’s Mustard’s trademark flair for club-ready hits that’s so damn infectious, especially when it informs the pop sensibilities of “Saved,” which are fittingly joyous. At one point, even Dolla $ign’s vocals jut up rhythmically and bounce to the lines “She know I’m a player/ She wanna fuck now but I wanna fuck later” — very apropos shit. Elsewhere, Dolla $ign links up with Future and Rae Sremmurd for “Blasé,” and you get the sense that organic chemistry’s taking place here, as well. It’s DJ Spinz’s deceptively simple beat, which swirls in maddening 8-bit sirens, that inspires an awesome hook tradeoff between Dolla $ign and Future.

Additionally, “Blasé” finds Ty Dolla $ign noticeably agitated when the topic of law enforcement arises: “Smoking kush in public, motherfuck the police/ I ain’t scared to diiiie, on them dead homies,” he raps, chillingly. These moments are refreshing, especially since Dolla $ign’s sexcapades are complete snoozers this time around. Like his elementary play on female names “Catherine” and “Katrina,” whom he apparently met in “Catalina” on “Horses in the Stable” — a cheap metaphor for women — is only part of Dolla $ign’s many lyrical limitations. But to the contrary, he’s not a traditional rapper; in fact, he’s barely a rapper at all. So don’t expect to hear him question America’s foreign policy or blurt out conspiracy theories anywhere on Free TC. However, where the album lacks any specific acknowledgment of the penal system or his brother Big TC’s imprisonment, it does string together a recorded phone conversation with him. But while the conversations are often startling — Big TC outlining a realtime lockdown situation — having them tacked onto each track, as brief interludes, feels like an afterthought.

Instead, country club vibes permeate over “Solid,” a flavorless acoustic guitar number featuring Babyface, and suddenly your phone’s back on Airplane Mode. Sure, Dolla $ign lets out some tough bars, but who wants to hear “Snitching on your homies, that ain’t solid” over some colorless strumming? Nobody does. Besides, he flourishes creatively when choosing to bypass such obeisance to specific genre conventions. But ultimately, the album’s best songs are all indiscriminately scattered amongst a litter of ostentatious decisions. And we’re talking gaudy shit: There’s the crossover appeal-baiting EDM number “Bring It Out of Me” uprooting Free TC from its hospitable Los Angeles residence for an Ibiza dance floor; “Guard Down” has both Kanye West and Diddy holding hands, singing “Kumbaya” over some folktronica chintz; the pastel-colored, R. Kelly-assisted “Actress” with its digitized vocal loops is better suited for a J-pop song — from 2008. And sadly by the time “Miracle” rolls around, you’re waiting to hopefully ride the Mustard-wave once more.

Links: Ty Dolla $ign - Atlantic

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