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Where Credit is Due: Ty Dolla $ign’s Free TC

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Halfway through Ty Dolla $ign’s commercial debut, Free TC, something very strange happens. The album is sixteen tracks long, but it effectively ends as the epic eighth track, “Miracle/Wherever,” comes to a close; up to this point, the album is a stunning and cohesive piece of work, and here its sonic and thematic explorations come to a head in mindbogglingly grand fashion.

After that comes a scattered assortment of radio-ready, genre-hopping singles, and to say they pale in comparison to what came before would be a vast understatement.

But even still, I can’t say I feel cheated by the West Coast R&B crooner’s debut, since the former half of Free TC stands completely on its own as a fully realized project. If anything, the record feels like two stylistically disparate EPs that just got slapped together. If I might theorize for a moment, I actually wouldn’t be surprised if Atlantic mandated the album’s second half since the first set of tracks were reportedly pretty costly (the lavish production demonstrates that quite readily) and don’t have much in the way of single material.

I’ll talk about the ninth through sixteenth tracks first just to get them out of the way. For the most part, these songs just aren’t very good. Even when you ignore the fact that the incredible musical sophistication and interconnectedness that defines the preceding tracks is entirely absent here, the songs don’t even impress as the breezy, radio-friendly cuts they’re meant to be.

Some of the tracks here are straight up bad, like the West Coast posse cut, “Only Right,” which features one of the worst beats LA’s DJ Mustard has ever cooked up along with some terrible guest verses — the award for worst line goes to Joe Moses, who raps “But it’s only right, I got one night / I give her ‘Murder Was the Case’ like Suge Knight.” I get the euphemism there — “Murder Was the Case” was a track of Snoop Dogg’s debut, Doggystyle, and Suge Knight was Snoop’s label boss — but that’s still a reach of the highest order. Even Ty seems disinterested in the song, contributing nothing beyond its hook and a short verse.

Other songs have some good moments, but the ball still gets dropped in some way or another. “Guard Down” is all uplifting soul, with Dolla $ign delivering some forthright and empathic lyrics: “Love your woman, stand by your brother / Hold onto your loved ones / I know we’ve all lost some / Pray before rain falls, the devils are coming.” The warm, staccato electric bassline recalls Kanye’s production on Late Registration, and all is blissful until Yeezy himself shows up to phone in some incredibly bad backing vocals only for Puff Daddy to arrive and deliver a monologue right after, turning that first dose of awfulness into a one-two punch.

The song “Blase” may be the greatest source of wasted potential on Free TC, as Ty teams up with Future over an ATL-style banger of an instrumental. And boy does it sting as you wait for Future to dig in and kill it as he’s been doing all year, only for him to say about ten total words on the track’s pre-chorus.

Ty’s performances across these tracks are perfectly fine, but it seems fairly clear that his heart wasn’t in these songs; the fact that he makes no effort to create kinship between these cuts, nor did he have a hand in producing any of them (two things he does brilliantly on the first half of Free TC), make that half-heartedness rather evident.

So as the final track, perhaps unexpectedly titled “Finale,” played out, I pretty much immediately skipped back to the start of the record. Because damn if those first eight songs aren’t a marvel, easily finding a place next to D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, and FKA Twigs’ LP1 as a modern R&B masterpiece.

The opener, “LA,” is one of the busiest and best tracks I’ve heard all year. The song actually first leaked about six months ago, and in its original form, it was a loud, straightforward banger. Its new incarnation, however, is something much more dynamic and powerful. Motivational speaker Nate Howard kicks the track off with an urgent spoken word piece delivered amidst a swarm of apocalyptic strings. “Momma I made it,” he concludes, “I killed this freestyle before they killed me / They saw Rodney, you saw a king / Realize how powerful you are and break free.”


From there, James Fauntleroy (still killing it) and Brandy step in and assist Ty Dolla $ign with a beautifully harmonized hook paying homage to the city they call home. Ty comes through with a verse reflecting on the ups and downs of life in LA (“In the city of the gangbang / Where we still dying over red and blue strings / Chuck my set up and it feel good / ‘Cause don’t nobody love you like your neighborhood”), while Kendrick Lamar delivers a verse that’s pure, sobering pathos, rapping “God let me dedicate this to the eighty percent that ain’t never comin’ home / God let me know you exist in a city where a hundred hollow tips get thrown.”

The track plays out like a West Coast version of Voodoo overseen by Dr. Dre instead of the Soulquarians. It even ends with a nod to the Doctor, as Ty delivers Roger Troutman-esque shout-outs to different neighborhoods in Los Angeles. And it must be said that the instrumental arrangements through all this are exquisite, with huge washes of strings and grand piano that change on a dime to match each vocalist’s distinct style.

The song ends with a phone conversation between Dolla $ign and his incarcerated younger brother (and the album’s namesake), TC. “The first song is ‘LA,’” TC declares, “so after that it’s gotta go from LA to all over the world.” What better transition could there be to the pristine, infectious “Saved,” a hedonistic party track that finds Ty revelling in his newfound lifestyle? It’s backed up by one of DJ Mustard’s best-ever instrumentals (perhaps only tied with Tinashe’s “2 On”) and a hilarious verse from Bay Area legend, E-40. For all the half-assed bids at hit singles that bog down the latter half of Free TC, it’s telling that “Saved” bests them, propelled by a far more honest sense of fun and energy.

I could write about each of these first eight tracks endlessly, but put simply, the songwriting and instrumentals stay just as sharp and engaging throughout. Ty Dolla $ign has a hand in producing a lot of these tracks, and the accompaniments are all wonderful. “Straight Up” is the epitome of restraint while “Horses in the Stable” (guess what the metaphor is there) features layer upon layer of dramatic guitars that recall Tupac’s “Me and My Girlfriend.” My favorite, though, has to be “Solid,” which matches Dolla $ign and R&B legend Babyface up with some heavily-strummed acoustic guitars and a warm electric bassline that gets engulfed in distortion when some bowed strings enter the mix.

There’s also a conceptual arc connecting these tracks. Lyrically, the songs mostly delve into Ty’s lavish lifestyle, but the heart-to-hearts with his brother frequently placed in between tracks provide balance; as “LA” seems to indicate, Ty is determined to stay grounded despite the excess that fame and fortune offer.

This balancing act is the focus of the gargantuan “Miracle/Wherever.” The song opens to a dazzling verse delivered by Ty’s brother from jail via phone. The recording quality is, of course, not the best, but TC’s delivery is impeccable — much better, in fact, than a lot of modern R&B singers who get to work with producers and engineers in an actual studio. His verse is filled with regret and hope in equal measure, with lines like “My momma really tried to keep me out the terrors of the hood / Did everything they told me I can’t / To show them that I could.” After Ty delivers a verse of his own, the two start harmonizing over the song’s chorus. There have been a lot of unexpectedly powerful, show-stopping moments in popular music this year, but this certainly ranks as one of the most moving.


After a brief instrumental interlude, some gorgeous strings and gospel-style choral vocals quietly fade into the mix as Dolla $ign busts out one of the strangest, most ear-grabbing falsettos I think I’ve ever heard. Lyrically, this section of the song brings him back to his usual womanizing antics, but the opulent instrumentation and shocking vocal delivery make an extremely bold statement. And even if this final section of “Miracle/Wherever” isn’t exactly poetic in its own right, it serves as a fitting conclusion to the thematic arc of the album up to that point, as it highlights the dichotomy between humility and indulgence that defines Ty Dolla $ign’s artistry.

In the special, perfect-world edition of Free TC, the album ends with the string arrangement at the end of “Miracle/Wherever.” The world’s not perfect, however, and Free TC will forever remain the bizarre, half-mediocre/half-masterful piece of work that it is.

But as strange as it is to say about an album that’s fifty percent bland or even bad, Ty Dolla $ign’s commercial debut is a must-listen for anyone with a fondness for R&B, since that which is lame is ultimately easy to look past — that which is truly great, however, shouldn’t be missed.