His taste in new music is similarly unexpected: "I was banging Future for awhile but I finally got tired of it. I tell you right now what I’ve been listening to. I always write this shit down. I don’t really wanna give people my secrets though, bro." He isn't being very serious; every trip he makes to New York, he's eager to share his most recent YouTube discoveries. This time, it's the stoned, textured instrumentals of Baths (he plays "Animals" on the studio computer) and Jai Paul ("Jasmine").
Ty first met Kareless shortly after Kareless got out of jail—the first time. It was 2003, and Kareless had spent time behind bars, he says, on an attempted murder charge. He'd been living at home just a few weeks, when his mom—who worked for the New York MTA—overheard a man talking on the phone about music and struggling to buy a MetroCard at the same time. The man went by the name Etcetera, and he ran a music label. Kareless' mom mentioned that her son was a rapper, and got Etcetera's phone number, promising him that Kareless could really spit. Through Etcetera, Kareless met Ty and Kory. Etcetera, though, soon fell out with the crew, for reasons that sound like the plot of a Ty Dolla $ign song.
Ty and Kareless, however, stayed friends. In the mid-2000s, when Ty and Kory's career was starting to take off, Kareless became a part of their extended crew, along with another rapper who went by Princess. Shortly after Buddah Brown Entertainment signed Ty and Kory, Kareless went back to jail on a weapons charge. "Nigga had the gun in a shoebox like an asshole," jokes Ty. "We was at the Super Bowl that year talkin’ to this nigga on the phone, 'nigga, we at the Super Bowl, goin up!'" But Ty and Kory didn't last all that long, either. "Kory was fuckin' [Princess], so it was destined to be over," Ty says.
Kareless and B return to the studio, and proceed to get hammered on the couch. Meanwhile Ty splits his time between reworking other people's songs (his least favorite part of the job, he admits) and working on his own material. He's detail-oriented, testing out each particular drum sound to hear which works best, removing sections of a beat that sound particularly dated, and recording and re-recording vocal tracks. He'll be in the studio until well after three in the morning.
While recording his vocals, he stands silhouetted behind the glass of the recording booth, running his hand up and down the piano. When singing, he repeats each line, directing the engineer in between each take, overdubbing, trying a lyric six, seven, or eight times. His friends, nodding along to the beat, joke and clown on the couch while Ty ignores them. He returns from the booth after about a half an hour to listen to the track played back.
He sets up a loop for a collaboration with Kareless. It has an eerie, percussive quality that makes it sound like an unreleased track from Meek Mill's Dreams & Nightmares. Ty and Kareless take turns trading off improvised verses. Kareless raps about selling drugs; Ty sing-raps about sex. They form basic rhyme patterns first, mumbling nonsense, slowly filling in the space. On Ty's turn, he mumbles for a bar, then raps: "hmm hmmm hmmm, then I hit a corner." He repeats this a few times, until the eureka moment: "I skeeted all on her, then I hit a corner!" He is triumphant. He retreats again to the studio to record the next few bars, adding a "skrrrt!" adlib to the background at the appropriate time.
There is an honesty at the heart of Ty's music. On record, Ty is a character calloused to love, emotionless and bluntly misogynist. But the actual sounds Ty employs against these words—from the swirling textures and substantial emotional undercurrents of the production to the narcotized qualities of his yearning, evocative vocals—directly contradict his untouchable swagger. The friction between the two grants his music a uniquely compelling realism.
It could be about remembering the pure physical sensation, or about the risk of pregnancy. But let's be real: it's about catching feelings.
That's not to say that it excuses the misogyny, and popular music is already teeming with hurt men. But something is at stake here, whatever Ty's on-record protestations to the contrary. This is most clear in Beach House's climactic moment, the semi-hidden track "Forbidden Fruit." Over plaintive, pillow-y atmosphere and muscular guitars, Ty slurs dreamily, "That pussy sooo good." Then, at the key moment: "I wish I never hit it raw." At once, a tangle of contradictions: realness, absurdity, eroticism. Then, after a beat, the bass kicks in, and it could pull a tear from your eye. This song isn't really pimp-ish at all—although Ty maintains plausible deniability. It's ambiguous: it could be about remembering the pure physical sensation, or about the risk of pregnancy. But let's be real: it's about catching feelings (and whose feelings, exactly?). The song's composition gives it real dimension, the implication that consequences must follow the fantasy.
One of the tracks he works on that night in the studio has a shimmering beat and a seductive melody: "If I buy one bottle then she fuckin' me/if I buy two bottles then she fuck for free...." But Ty isn't feeling the hook. "I was kind of iffy about it, because every time I play it in front of a room full of bitches, they always turn their nose up, like 'What the fuck? What you mean?' It's just..." He pauses to think. "I say disrespectful shit, but it's the shit that they want to hear. I don't know if they want to hear that. But maybe I'm trippin'. Because I didn't like fuckin' 'Toot It and Boot It.' And that shit blew up."
At this point, prior to the release of "Paranoid," "Toot It and Boot It" still loomed large over Ty's music. He tries to explain his initial distaste for the song that kickstarted his career. "I knew everybody liked it, but it was just like...I knew I was way more than just making some shit like that. I wanted my first time coming out to be some amazing shit." But he maintains a zen-like perseverance and a loyalty to the people he came up with.
Everything happens at the perfect time, man. You may not realize it. But now I do.
"Everything happens at the perfect time, man. You may not realize it. But now I do. The reason why people are so successful is because they are really hard workers and they really do good shit. Before I was wondering why the will.i.am shit [Ty and Kory] wasn't popping. That's because we weren't popping, we weren't out here. Coming from that, having hella bread and shit. Then going back to the hood, fuckin' with YG. Just seeing that come-up was like, damn. Them niggas was really like lil' ass niggas. Now YG got the Panamera."
He returns to the song about plying women with bottles of liquor. "Kinda corny. Don't know if I would feel like I'm swagging singing it. You feel me?" He pauses, then shrugs: "Aww fuck it. I am Mr. Toot it and Boot It."
By the next time he's in New York the song's been trashed altogether.
- - - -
Ty sat in a studio in New York prior to the release of Beach House 2, playing fresh tracks for an audience that included Kareless and legendary record exec Kevin Liles. Most of the songs Ty played remain unreleased to this day, a vision of things to come; perhaps they will appear on Ty's debut album, which he promises will arrive this year. One song, with a hook about getting wasted, was driven by a sunny strummed guitar that sounded more country than R&B. It seemed very frat-party friendly. A second is a more straightforward West Coast hip-hop track, a cinematic beat in the 2001 vein that Ty threatens will include a verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track—which sounded incredible, it must be said, although studio monitors are notoriously generous to on-one-listen experience—shifted into a four-on-the-floor EDM beat, with epic synthesizer sweeps. Although some might be put off by such blatant crossover moves, an advantage of Ty's approach is that even the songs aiming for the pop jugular still sound a part of his world.
The attempt to re-release "My Cabana" as a single with Young Jeezy didn't connect; in order to get official release, the beat needs to be recreated without the Zedd sample, since The Doors denied clearance.
But while his unreleased work sounds promising—Ty formulates an attack plan inspired by Flo Rida, floating a series of singles and letting the people decide—Beach House 2, which came out soon after, didn't quite live up to its predecessor. There was enough energy in it to keep Ty's momentum going. But some of the best tracks he'd recorded around this time ended up on other artists' projects, without promotion, like Alley Boy's "R.N.G.M." The attempt to re-release "My Cabana" as a single with Young Jeezy didn't connect; in order to get official release, the beat needs to be recreated without the Zedd sample, since The Doors denied clearance. Without it, the magic simply wasn't there.
After Ty played through his newest material, Kevin Liles took him aside, while the music blared from the monitors, out of range of anyone's hearing. Once he departed, Ty implied that Liles thought he should rein in some of his lyrics' less refined aspects. Without being asked about his answer, Ty brushed off the possibility.
- - - -
The other week, a few days after the release of the Beach House EP and his abbreviated headlining performance at SOB's, Ty played videos and new songs for a group of writers in a studio in Times Square.
Despite being only 7 tracks long—including both the familiar "Paranoid" and "Paranoid (Remix)"—Beach House EP shows an admirable slice of Ty's breadth, even if it still feels like he's pulling quite a few punches to conserve his energy. Ty's adventurousness is on display, at least in miniature. The second half of the multi-part "Work" transforms into a tense workout for Twista, while "Never Be the Same" angles for the kind of pathos Ty channelled so effectively on the first Beach House's closer, "Time." One minute, a track will including a Nate Howard spoken word piece; the next, a titanic Young Chop beat. Bed spring sound effects, followed by a tasteful violin solo.
The diversity of Ty's taste is apparent in his favorite songwriters. Although he's situated in R&B and hip-hop, he is, at his core, a pop songwriter. He admires Esther Dean, whose "top line" singing is responsible for a huge proportion of the Top 40 hits in the United States. He mentions James Fauntleroy, who's collaborated heavily with Justin Timberlake. He's a huge fan of Sia, who's been working with Jennifer Lopez. He likes Hit Boy, too, and has known him since high school music class. One of his favorite songs at the moment is Beyonce's "Drunk In Love," written by new industry golden child Detail. "I heard that on the radio," he says, "And I just wanted to get to the studio."
One song he'd played before—a tribute to Los Angeles—now includes an incredible verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track, with Akon, has a perfect summertime melody, and sounds like a potential smash.
With the success of "Paranoid"—the song's now spent nine weeks in the Hot 100—Ty's fully shaken the shadow of "Toot It and Boot It." As usual, he shares some unreleased tracks. One song he'd played before—a tribute to Los Angeles—now includes an incredible verse from Kendrick Lamar. Another track, with Akon, has a perfect summertime melody, and sounds like a potential smash.
But as always, the industry throws as many obstacles at him as it provides outlets. This time, it's the "Or Nah" video with Wiz, which hasn't lived up to his expectations. It's a standard industry video, with Ty and Wiz performing into the camera, surrounded by women.
In comparison to his own disappointing video, he points to FKA Twigs' tour de force music video "Papi Pacify." Even as he's playing it for the remaining members of the press, he's completely caught up, as if seeing it for the first time. "I need to meet her," he says, enraptured.
He also plays extended sections of Australian producer Ta-ku's Songs To Break Up To, an album he's been obsessed with lately. He draws attention to its textures, the way the percussion snaps, the way its sounds resonate in space. He jokes about how while other folks have sex to his music, he fucks to the sounds of Ta-ku. "These are just songs," he says, gesturing at a laptop packed with unreleased Ty Dolla $ign tracks recorded over the past few years. Ta-ku, though, is what music should be: "To be real. To be completely real. You know? I don't know if anybody cares about that. But I do."
Even as Ty derides his own music, as if he feels chained to traditional song structures, his is an art poised between extremes. Rather than making some final decision and following a particular impulse—traditionalism or experimentalism, maturity or juvenilia, pop or hip-hop—what animates Ty’s music is that he’s suspended resolution. He wants to be experimental, but he wants to be popular; he aims for edgy, ‘ignorant’ lyrics, but desires respectability. He has the raw feel of his underground, gangster roots, but listens with regularity to KROQ. As a musician, he seeks the admiration of artists in Los Angeles’ alt-R&B scene, knows members of Sa-Ra Creative Partners and hangs with Thundercat. At the same time, he’s drawn to the appeal of commercial R&B, not because he necessarily wants to make a lot of money—although one doubts he would turn it down—but because of how he conceives of his audience: female-dominated, rather than the "weirdos" (his word) drawn to the shows of many of his art-ier peers.
He is a populist who respects his craft. This willingness to play with his audience's expectations ultimately makes for his most interesting music. It's not his substantial skills as a musician that makes his art work, nor is it his willingness to aim for crowd-pleasing immediacy; instead, it's both at once, in tension, the battle within him. Let's hope one never wins out.
As if to prove the point, five minutes later everyone in the room—and most of all, Tyrone "Dolla $ign" Griffin—snap their heads and bounce around the studio, caught up in unconscious motion sparked by the undeniable energies of Tommy Lee Sparta's "Vibes Inna Dis," Kevin Gates' "Don't Know," and Young Thug's "Danny Glover." As Ty rapped along to lyrics about money tall like two midgets, the weed smoke unfurled, the studio a cocoon of possibility.