Around noon last Tuesday, Bryson Tiller, the 23-year-old R&B singer-songwriter and rapper, made an announcement on Instagram and Twitter: His debut album Trapsoul, released last October, had gone platinum in America. The news could only come as a shock. Trapsoul had sold a mere 22,000 copies in its first week, had gone un-reviewed by virtually all major music media publications, and had never risen above No. 8 on the weekly Billboard charts. It was already a surprise when Tiller announced, only five days prior, that his album had gone gold. To go from gold to platinum in such a brief interval seemed improbable. But, as the artist explained in his Instagram post, Trapsoul had actually gone gold a month ago. He had held off until immediately before his back-to-back appearances (both nights sold out) at Radio City Music Hall to share the news; after the second show, the Friday before, he learned that his album had sold a million copies. Tiller was overcome with awe and gratitude: “words cannot explain how i feel. thank you if you bought this, you changed my life.”
The fact of Trapsoul’s platinum status is particularly astonishing when one takes into account its content and its artist’s persona, neither of which seem, on first listen and glance, to be especially distinctive. It was true, of course, that the album features two strong singles, one of which, the woozy, muted, patiently pleading ballad “Don’t,” amassed tens of millions of listens on Soundcloud and whose music video on Youtube has by now been viewed over 105 million times. The runaway success of “Don’t” paved the way for Tiller to meet with industry veterans such as Timbaland and Drake, to sign a record deal with RCA, and to release Trapsoul, an album which blends details of the artist’s rise to prominence with elementary romantic plots, like those distilled by the single. A girl and a boy have recently split; a second boy, the singer, is poised to step in:
Be damned if I let him catch up;
It’s easy to see that you’re fed up:
I am on a whole ’nother level—
Girl, he only fucked you over cause you let him.
Fuck him, girl, I guess he didn’t know any better:
Girl, that man didn’t show any effort;
Do all I can just to show you you’re special,
Certain it’s your love that holds me together.
Much as the words never break from the classic set of R&B next-man-up tropes, Tiller’s singing voice never leaves the crooning range from which it begins. But within that range, his deft sense for the unexpected melodic turn sustains the listener’s interest in a romantic narrative, which, though simple, remains compelling when presented with candor and a minimum of fuss. “Don’t” is not a flashy song, but it glows with consistency. Its dim, stark, trembling synthesizers and sparse trap percussion subtly enhance the sense of not-quite-rushed urgency latent in Tiller’s lyrics and delivery, and what emerges is something distinctive precisely in its willful lack of distinction, its carefully calibrated universality.
Once one understands that what “Don’t” evokes is something like the Platonic ideal of a love that unshowily strives to be non-platonic, accounting for its huge success is easy. Postmodern romance comprises a series of minor characters and general situations seeking, respectively and mostly without success, major status and unique qualities; but by accepting the characters and situations as such and laying no more emphasis upon them than they can bear, Tiller’s art endows itself with an otherwise impossible realism, and popularity. In a world where the pressures are strong to view love either as a source of supreme significance or as an essentially meaningless phenomenon reducible to biology and economic class, there must be a silent, broad, and powerful demand to see love as small but definite, basic but irreducible, and Bryson Tiller satisfies that demand.