Music

Bryson Tiller Is Ready to Wake Up the Doubters

Suppose you glance over to Bryson Tiller’s discography. After peeking through, you’ll notice why he’s a cerebral marksman on the features front. After clinching Hot 100 wins alongside Summer Walker (“Playing Games”), Jazmine Sullivan (“Insecure”) and biggest of all, DJ Khaled and Rihanna (“Wild Thoughts”), Tiller has bloomed into a perennial go-to in the R&B circuit. Dive further, of course, and you’ll see his 2015 goldmine, T R A P S O U L, a groundbreaking R&B album with a treasure trove of ear candy sweet enough for any heartbreak. But that doesn’t tell the entire story of Tiller, the Louisville slugger who batted his way through adversity.

After working night shifts at Papa John’s to support his music career, he famously deleted his most popular song, “Don’t,” from SoundCloud because he was unsure about the track’s potential. Despite these hurdles, he ascended to star status, notching three top 10 albums on the Billboard 200, including his 2017 chart-topper, True to Self. While Spotify anointed his debut as one of the most influential projects of the modern era, Tiller’s journey goes beyond those 14 songs — which is why his fourth album, Bryson Tiller, arriving this Friday (Apr. 5), looks to set the tone and start a new chapter in his career. 

“The Bryson Tiller album, I wanted to show people the many things I’m capable of,” he explains. “There’s different types of vibes on here. I can take it to many different places, make so many new fans, and try new things.”

After delivering his first top 20 Hot 100 record as a lead artist since 2015’s “Don’t” with “Whatever She Wants,” Tiller’s confidence is sky-high. The R&B fireball is seeking vengeance on those who once called him a one-album wonder. Playing by his rules, Tiller unabashedly writes the story he always wanted to tell on album number four, with Mario Kart’s “Bullet Bill” as inspiration. 

“My main goal with this album is for the masses to hear everything I’m capable of doing,” says Tiller. “So they give me a chance and stick around as fans. My main goal is that everybody hears it and my guarantee is that you’ll love at least one song from this album. I can guarantee that.”

Bellow, Billboard speaks to Bryson Tiller about his new album, why he’ll never release a sequel to T R A P S O U L, finding inspiration in Super Smash Bros and Mario Kart and if he’ll ever drop a full-fledged rap mixtape.

I noticed you got some new jewels, like the Bullet Bill chain. I think you said it represented your success on the Billboard charts. Could you clarify how that’s parallel to your recent wins?

I love Mario Kart a lot. When you’re in last place, they give you a lot of power-ups. The power-ups you could get are all dependent on what position you are in the race. If you’re in first or second, you’ll get a banana or a shell sometimes and then something to defend yourself from the blue shell. If you’re in first place, it’s gonna knock you down for a little bit. I feel like the similarities between Mario Kart and my career is like, I’ve been in last place for a while — or whatever place you want to put me in. Definitely nowhere near first, second or third.

But if you know what you’re doing in Mario Kart and you get a power-up and pull a Bullet Bill you could be in second place just like that… You could get a star and be in first place. There’s so many things you could do if you know what you’re doing. I’ve seen people be sad, ’cause they’re in 12th place — but I’m like, “You get the best power-ups.” As long as you lock in and focus, you could be at the top quickly. I felt like I needed a chain for Bullet Bill because that and my career have a lot of similarities. Me being in last place and feeling like I’m gonna sneak up on people and they don’t expect me to be next to them and I like that.

We still gotta get busy in Mario Kart if you want that work. Me and Toad get it in.

Man, I’ve heard this so many times. I believe you, but I’ve gotten bored of Mario Kart because I’m tired of winning. All I do is win. 

I saw the Kirby chain as well. You love Super Smash Bros. and even called it the “best fighting game.” Take me back to when you first became a fan and even how those video games help your creativity and loosen you up while in album mode.

My love for Kirby started in Smash Bros. for Nintendo 64. Kirby’s had games for that on Super Nintendo and Gameboy Color and Gameboy Advance, but I ain’t really played them. But when I played on Smash Bros., I never knew who to pick — but I liked Kirby because I could absorb any one of my enemies and become something like that. That’s why I like Kirby so much now. I compare myself to him as an artist, because I feel like Kirby learns from his enemies and he can become them and still remain himself, unlike the Pokemon, Ditto, who would literally be you. Kirby remains himself, but can be anything. ‘

I think when we were in Tennessee, I may have shown you my Gohan tattoo. I know you said Dragon Ball Z is top-notch anime. There’s a lot of artists that appreciate anime. Has anime and video games been a way for you to connect with artists beyond music?

Not really. There’s a couple people who I know who like anime and video games. I know Chris Brown and Big Sean do. That’s not something we sit around and talk about for hours. Most times, it’s about music or relationship stuff. I would say there’s nobody I’ve connected with on that level that plays Apex Legends as much as me, or has been Apex Predator before. 

You said this is the happiest you’ve been in terms of releasing an album. With that type of happiness, was that why you also chose to title your album your name because you’re at peace with yourself?

There’s a couple reasons I wanted to name it Bryson Tiller, my name. One of the reasons was because people put me in a box for so long. They want me to stick to this one thing I did in 2015, which was T R A P S O U L. Rapping, singing and blending it to make it one thing. Keep doing this and everything will win. Even people around me that I’m cool with, “Yeah bro, just stick to what you know.” I’m like, “No, I’m an artist. I feel like I’m capable of so many different things.” People don’t know that I’m a better rapper than when I made T R A P S O U L. I don’t wanna say I’m a better singer, but I dumbed down my vocals for T R A P S O U L. People just don’t know what I’m capable of as a singer. 

Everything is intentional with this album. For example, somebody would hear “Whatever She Wants” and hear the way I’m rapping like, “Oh, so simple. He wants to be a rapper so bad.” But they don’t know that I would bar the f–k up on a Slum Village beat and go crazy. It was intentional for me to make a simple song like that. They might hear a song like “Don’t” and hear how simple the melodies are. I’m not really singing. I’m singing, but I ain’t singing. Like, “Oh, this is as good as he can sing.” I have songs that will probably blow you away with how good I’m singing. Everything’s intentional with me. If I choose not to do something or if I’m not doing something, it’s not because I can’t, it’s because this is what I want to do. That was a long answer.

The other reason I named it Bryson Tiller is because I felt like this is just a great time for me to show people myself and be myself. Show people who I am and do things that are me. I love sci-fi movies, which is the inspiration behind the cover. I love video games. I’m a nerd. I always kind of been one and I want to embrace that as much as I can this year. Embrace everything that’s me regardless if people like it or not. I’ve never been cool before and I don’t know, man, I’m just happy with who I am because I think that’s cool. 

I feel like you and 6LACK can easily turn it on when in the rap bag. Have you entertained the thought of a mixtape or EP strictly rapping?

Oh yeah, absolutely. I actually did a mixtape called Slum Tiller. It’s a play on Slum Village. That’s actually where “Whatever She Wants” comes from. I did three volumes of the Slum Tiller mixtape. That came from the second volume of that. I’m just rapping for the most part. It’s my no-filter rap mixtape. I say whatever the hell I want in whatever way I want to. Because I decided to do that and take the filter off I was able to make a song like “Whatever She Wants.”

I might have to call up DJ Drama to get a Gangsta Grillz.

I love DJ Drama. A couple people hit me up and wanted to host a tape. I just kind of treated it differently from my other mixtapes. I’ve done mixtapes before called Killer Instinct one and two and that one definitely had the mixtape feel with the DJ drops and whatever. This one is mostly original music. The only ones that get remixed on this tape are Slum Village classics. 

Do you remember when you first became a Slum Village fan?

I’ve always heard the songs growing up here and there, like “Selfish.” As I started to go on tour and travel the world, like I was in Toronto and heard “2U 4U” and it was a super different vibe. I was like, “Why does this make me want to relax?” That type of stuff they do is very neo-soul-infused. It feels like it could be R&B, but it’s not R&B because they’re rapping — but R&B lovers could listen to it. I think they were the perfect people for me to [remix on] this tape. If I’m rapping, I’m gonna make sure most of the stuff is R&B-infused. There are samples in the beat that might be singing. It might just be super-melodic. I sing a little bit on there. 

You have proven to be one of the go-to guys when it comes to features. What is it about collaborating that you get joy out of that you may not be necessarily getting out of your solo stuff?

One, not having to write a hook, multiple verses, and have to do all types of ad-libs and s–t. So it’s a lot less pressure on myself. When it comes to doing features, I can do either a verse or a hook, and I love that. Two, I love to collaborate with artists. I love to see what they bring me. Sometimes, they pull me out of my world and bring me into theirs. Sometimes, they give me songs that are similar to what I’ve already done, which is cool too. I just like collaborating with artists.

We’ve been talking about your love for video games. You designed one video game yourself over the last few years. Are there any similarities in your approach to crafting a record versus designing a video game?

I would say from the story part of my video game, absolutely, yes. At the end of the day, what I really enjoy doing the most is telling stories. That’s what I’ve loved doing since elementary school. I would write a personal narrative and I had pictures in it and I’d have the whole classroom huddled over my desk trying to read it because the teacher was raving about it. When I got to middle school, I was making these comic books out of printer paper and I would draw pictures on them and I would make stories. I had four issues and I had fans. Not many, like five or six, but they were genuinely interested in what was going to happen next.

My new way of doing that became music, as I got to 16 or 17 and I was like, “I’m gonna tell stories through music now.” I feel like over the years, since 2020, I decided to bring it back to my first love because I started playing the game I fell in love with and that reignited my love for gaming. Apex Legends. I spent so much time doing it I was like, “Damn, I’m not making no money from doing it. I’m not making money from music because I’m playing so much.” I might as well be making my own game. I went back to my own notes when I had a game in 2017 like, “I’m gonna make this game first because it will be the easiest.” That was my start. I’ve been working on that for four years now since late 2020. 

When you first deleted “Don’t,” you said it was a confidence thing and you were self-conscious about putting it out. Has there been a time that insecurity may have resurfaced to where you sat back and hit reset on this album?

Yes and no. I’ma say “yes” because there were a lot of songs that didn’t really make it. It wasn’t that I was necessarily insecure about it, I just felt like it didn’t belong on the album. “Whatever She Wants” wasn’t supposed to be on my album. That was made for my Slum Tiller mixtape. It just became so massive, and I was gaining so many new fans, I was like, “You know what, this album is about versatility. Let’s bring ‘em all to the Bryson Tiller album so they could get to know who I am for the people who are just now discovering me as an artist.” It made sense from a business standpoint. 

But as far as the songs I recorded on this album, I’m pretty confident and sure about all of them. I will say this: I know that everybody is not gon’ like every song. Everything is intentional. There are people who despise “Whatever She Wants.” They’re like, “I don’t wanna hear him do this. I want to hear him do that.” I got music for everybody on here. I got a song on here that I really love, but I feel like some people might only like that song compared to the other songs. I made one song on the album I was like, “This is my self-titled album, I have to try a song with no Auto-Tune.” There are gonna be people who like that song over every other song because they like singers that don’t use Auto-Tune. And I’m OK with that.

When you look at “Outside,” “Calypso” and “Whatever She Wants,” those are three different sounding records. What song on the album embodies that elite storytelling from Bryson Tiller?

Definitely “Calypso.” It is just a movie, top-to-bottom. It’s about a guy going to the club and looking at the guest list and realizing his name is on there next to a girl he used to date. He never forgot her name because she wore her name on her necklace. They get inside the club and it’s empty. Maybe it’s not empty and it’s a vibe, but it reminds them of a time in the club when it was packed. That song comes on, “Just like magic they playing our song.” It’s just like, “We gotta get one last dance in.” The guy’s hoping he can go home with her that night, but it doesn’t end up that way. That is the most story-driven song so far out of those three.

You said a quote, to me, that was so hard-hitting. “Bryson Tiller is not T R A P S O U L, T R A P S O U L is Bryson Tiller.” When you look at that quote, talk about the gift and potentially the curse that came with T R A P S O U L

It’s always interesting to me, because even hearing “most groundbreaking album” — nobody said this s–t when it came out. I get it takes a while for people to understand that. I remember playing this album for a couple DSPs and magazines, and straight crickets in the room. I felt so self-conscious after those meetings. It felt so awkward. Just imagine the outro to “Right My Wrongs.” Crickets in the room. Nobody had nothing to say. I’m like, “God d–n.” That made me self-conscious like, “Man, I’m trash. What the f–k am I doing?”

To see all the love for it now is kinda crazy. Now they’re like, “You need to stick to this.” I need to stick to the thing y’all were telling me was bad at first? Also, how about I just do me, like I did on that album, and y’all just listen to it and grow with it and see how you feel about it in three months, six months to a year instead of trying to dismiss it right away. As soon as people try to come in and say, “Do this,” it takes all the fun out of music. It makes everything less authentic. 

When I said, “Bryson Tiller is not T R A P S O U L, T R A P S O U L is Bryson Tiller,” they went from calling me a one-hit wonder to a one-album wonder. They keep moving the goal posts for me. I made that album, I don’t want to say that album didn’t make me because it definitely did, but at the same time, there are a lot of people that still don’t enjoy T R A P S O U L and it’s not something they would put on and those are the people I want to reach. I want to reach those people with different sounds.

T R A P S O U L was great for the time and what it was. When I listen to it now, some people say it’s timeless and some people say it sounds dated. I’m kinda on the fence between the two, because I know that there are other people who like other sounds in music and those are people I want to reach. I’ve already reached the T R A P S O U L fans. I’ve already done that. I don’t need to do that. People tell me to make T R A P S O U L 2 all the time. I’ll die before I make that. I mean that s–t. It’s all about BTA and whatever I decide to do next.

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