On Monday afternoon, within a couple of hours of each other, two mixtapes from highly-touted coastal musicians with dollar-signs in their names hit the internet. Both have vaguely seasonal titles, but other than that, they’re about as different as two mixtapes can be while sitting next to each other on DatPiff’s front page. One of those tapes was Summer Knights, the sophomore tape of ’90s boom-bap revivalism from Brooklyn’s Joey Bada$$, and to tell the truth, I mostly expected to be writing about that one today. On last year’s 1999, Joey was dense and wordy, but he also had a youthful energy and a prime ear for dusty beats, and he came across like a welcome Hudson River breeze. On Summer Knights, though, that energy is gone. Joey’s beats, even the ones from newfound big-name collaborators, are relatively anemic, his flows are all over the place, his voice is a burnt-out rasp, and his writing has gotten almost comically lazy. At one point, he seriously says, “Somehow the rap game remind me of the trap game / In fact, it’s the exact same and these tracks is my crackcaine.” Honestly: “crackcaine.” He could’ve just repeated the phrase “rap words” a bunch of times and had the same effect; the line means less than nothing. And so this week’s pick is the ideological and aesthetic opposite of Summer Knights: A cold, spacey, Auto-Tuned-out R&B tape about having so much sex.
On Twitter yesterday, I wrote that Ty Dolla $ign (or, if you prefer, Ty$; he uses both names) absolutely owns the “singing incredibly sweetly about being the biggest asshole” lane right now. My music-critic colleague Craig Jenkins Tweeted me back, noting that the Weeknd still exists, and I suppose he’s right. But even at his most nihilistic, the Weeknd’s Abel Tesfaye has a lost-little-kid quality in his voice; it’s like part of him can’t believe the terrible things he’s doing, even as he’s doing them. That’s not there with Ty$. I’m not sure that Ty$ enjoys fucking every woman in arm’s reach and them kicking them out of his house, exactly; you never hear a smile in his voice. But he also doesn’t sound conflicted about it. It’s simply what he does. And his voice, even through Auto-Tune, is so smooth and honeyed that he gets away with it, using his delivery to give frisson to words that read as something cold and borderline-hateful on paper.
A typical moment: Ty$, on the minimal and blippy “Paranoid” (which previously appeared on DJ Mustard’s great Ketchup mixtape), cooing, “Both of my bitches drive Raaaaange Rovers / None of my bitches can staaaaay over.” Another typical moment: Ty$, on “I Bet,” watching a woman dance and then softly murmuring to her, “I bet you can’t do that with a dick in it” a bunch of times. And then, clarifying, “I bet you can’t do that with my dick in it,” as if he could’ve possibly been talking about someone else’s dick. The sweetest, most devoted song on the whole tape is called “Get It How I Live,” and it reaches its climax when Ty$ wails, “I wish she’d spend the night so I could hit it again in the morning.” And, because of some weird sequencing decision, that song is on the same MP3 as a song called “Bitches Ain’t Shit,” which features Ty$ verbally bashing a woman for fucking him while her man is in the hospital, telling her, “I’d kill your fucking ass if you did that shit to me.” So yeah: Nice guy! When Chris Brown shows up near the end of the tape, it’s not exactly a surprise.
But there’s an age-old R&B bridge between hard-ass carnality and slick gospel technique. R. Kelly built a hall-of-fame career on that exact same duality, and a few hundred others have achieved varying levels of fame doing the same thing. Ty$ rides the divide beautifully. As his words get crueller, his voice gets warmer and fonder, and it’s just a wondrously gorgeous voice. Ty$ never sounds like he’s straining when he hits high notes, and he never shoehorns in his virtuosity. He doesn’t oversing. The vocal tics and flutters and curlicues all come within the fabric of the song, following the song’s melodic logic. Ty$ doesn’t use Auto-Tune to hide vocal deficiencies or to hit crying-robot emotive effects, the way Future so often does. Instead, the technology just helps his voice exist in the airy, synthetic calm of his tracks; if he sounded completely human, he wouldn’t sound quite right. He’s also funny, and he knows it; it’s why he pushes his sex-talk to such ridiculous extremes. I’ve been humming “I bet you can’t do that with a dick in it” to myself all day, and it’s not just because it’s a catchy hook, though it’s that, too.
All the hooks here are catchy. Ty$ is an absolute craftsman. He’s also a producer, one of the more important ones within the West Coast’s recent ratchet-music wave. But Ty$’s tracks aren’t icy, minimal slaps, the way DJ Mustard’s tracks are. Instead, his tracks hover and streak. They slow things down without cluttering them up with extraneous instrumentation. When he adds another flourish to a track — a mournful violin, say, or a pitched-down Beyoncé vocal sample — that flourish serves a purpose and makes an impression. Ty$ is the son of a musician who got his start as a session bassist, and he understands how to put these tracks together, how to slide a melody in without bashing you over the head with it. An instrumental version of Beach House 2 would sound something like, say, an instrumental version of Drake’s So Far Gone; it’d have that same cannily orchestrated synthy melodic insistence. This is sinuous, seductive, expertly executed music, and Ty$ is using it to sing about being the most robotic sex addict imaginable. As far as his public persona goes, that probably makes him a bad person, but it also makes him a great pop musician.
Download Beach House 2 here.