Review: Ty Dolla $ign’s debut album finds pleasure in self-constructed excess

Free TC has Ty Dolla $ign at his most innovative and most seductive

In 2012 and 2013, Ty Dolla $ign, the West Coast almost-rapper who had recently signed to Atlantic Records, released two mixtapes in quick succession: Beach House and Beach House 2. The tracks, grimy and slippery, sounded like they came from the kind of person who would stand just a little too close to a stranger at a strip club. Ty Dolla $ign (born Tyrone William Griffin, Jr.) planted himself somewhere between Houston club rap and Atlanta trap, plus he sang in a soft, pliant, decidedly ungrimy tenor. In 2012, his sound felt like the start of something new and uncomfortable, but now, artists like The Weeknd and Fetty Wap have pulled ahead with their own strange cadences and debauched vocals, and Griffin is suddenly behind the pack. So Ty’s debut album, Free TC — named after Griffin’s younger brother who is (wrongfully, according to Griffin) serving a life sentence for murder — attempts to slyly sneak back to the front. It does this by harnessing subtlety, and Free TC is more willfully subtle than any of Ty Dolla $ign’s past work — while proving that he still has a singular way with a sex jam.

A singular way with a sex jam

The album opens with "LA," a song about finding strength and comfort in South LA while also trying to escape from it. Kendrick Lamar’s long, breathless verse in the middle adds a balancing weight to the track without overwhelming its inherent pride: "Let me hit the pawn shop, Mama said we need a loan / God, let me dedicate this to the 80 percent that ain’t never coming home." Because this is the album’s first track, it would make sense to assume this is what Free TC will be about: injustice, lapsed religion, and finding inspiration in a place while simultaneously being crushed by that place. But the second track, "Saved," overturns that foundation in favor of partying. DJ Mustard’s tin-trap production is right at home bundled against a classic Ty Dolla $ign conundrum: "She wanna fuck now but I wanna fuck later."

Ty Dolla $ign’s early mixtapes were fun but not exactly innovative, and they struggled to find material outside of spilled drinks and seduction. Lyrically, Free TC is very much the same, but it sounds more mature. "Solid" has Ty working more subdued vocals than usual, lisping his steel "S’s" against an acoustic guitar. "Horses in the Stable" somehow manages to sound like a country western song sung by a rap cowboy caught up in the "pussy like quicksand." "Credit," which opens with the line "Gotta stop talkin' to them bitches" sounds like an R. Kelly B-side. Through it all, Griffin assumes a monotone R&B sing-song cadence, shoving words into the beat where they don’t quite fit. Free TC shows new range for Ty Dolla $ign, but it’s still a range that still only makes sense in Ty’s usual sphere of self-constructed excess.

Part of the reason Free TC sounds different from past Dolla $ign projects is the sheer number of guests on the album. California rapper E-40 is loud and loopy on "Saved," like he’s auditioning to be the newest OxiClean spokesperson. Trey Songz assumes the role of a resigned lover (a role he plays well) on "Know Ya." "Guard Down," which features both Kanye West and Diddy, feels like an afterthought — reverent and moralistic, padded by a broken triangle beat. Then there’s Fetty Wap, lending a near-perfect verse to the instant sex anthem "When I See Ya."

It's impossible to talk about Ty Dolla $ign without talking about his voice

But it’s impossible to talk about anything Ty Dolla $ign does without talking about his own voice, which is still the most compelling element on Free TC. It’s an elastic, supple, but taut thing that can waver between persuasive whisper and heated growl. He’s never quite rapping; instead he sings like a rapper, skipping across each word like the bouncing dot in a karaoke video. Griffin tests out his voice’s shape most effectively on what is probably the most important song on Free TC: "MiracleWherever." It’s an 8-minute-long track that opens with an echoey, straight-from-the-cell verse from the album’s namesake. It places the listener next to TC in prison from the start; the juxtaposition makes Ty Dolla $ign’s choral bursts, malleable wordplay, and soft tongue clicks feel uniquely formal by comparison.

By the time Free TC is over, it’s hard to believe this is the first real studio album we’ve gotten from Ty Dolla $ign. But that’s a good thing, because had he released an album any earlier, it probably wouldn’t have sounded like this. On Free TC, Ty Dolla $ign proves he still knows his way around the club, but his scope has expanded to what’s going on outside. And he’s still not exactly sure where it’s going to take him, but he sounds good getting there.