If you listen to Bryson Tiller’s 2017 sophomore album True to Self, you’ll unearth a gem in “Before You Judge,” where he expresses his disdain for stardom: “So many times I second-guessed myself, n—a, I never wanted to be an artist,” he grumbles on the track. Two years prior, Tiller was singing a different tune, happily breaking through to mainstream R&B with his ambitious debut, Trapsoul.
The 14-track collection birthed a star in 2015, one who thrived in trap-laden beats with icy melodies. The masses deemed Trapsoul an instant classic due to Tiller’s unrelenting honesty and hit-making abilities. His breakout single, “Don’t,” first bubbled on SoundCloud before morphing into an anthem for those dealing with heartache. While Tiller collected co-signs from Drake, The Weeknd and Timbaland, the reserved singer didn’t relish the idea of fame.
His sophomore album, True to Self, displayed Tiller’s frustration with newfound celebrity — so much so that it seeped into his music. While the album landed Tiller his first No. 1 on the Billboard 200, he admits now that he didn’t give his all while crafting the project.
Instead of languishing in regret, Tiller spent the next few years writing sizzling features for Summer Walker (“Playing Games”), Jazmine Sullivan (“Insecure”) and H.E.R. (“Could’ve Been”), and shaping his forthcoming third album. After tantalizing fans with his release of “Inhale” earlier this month, Tiller followed it up with “Always Forever” on Monday (Sept. 21).
Before Tiller presses play on his next endeavor, he looks to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Trapsoul this Friday (Sept. 25) with two unreleased tracks and the 2016 remix of “Rambo” with The Weeknd. Billboard spoke to the elusive star about the meaning of Trapsoul now versus its release, video games being his true love, retirement, grieving his grandmother’s death and why he didn’t give his all on True to Self.
Trapsoul is turning five years old on Friday. That’s a whole kid right there.
Man, it’s crazy. It’s nuts. I always look back on it and it’s just crazy. Sometimes I just look up at the calendar and I’m like, “Damn. I can’t believe it’s been five years.” Like, I’ve been in the music industry for five years? That blows my mind sometimes.
What does Trapsoul mean to you now versus when you first dropped it in 2015?
Great question. What it means to me now? [My manager] Neil has his wall full of all the Trapsoul accolades and stuff. I stare it at sometimes and I just look at the different song titles or whatever and I’m just like, “Wow. Everyone one of these songs, there was somebody who didn’t believe in it when I played it for them.” Or they may have given me a weird vibe when I played it for them like, “I don’t know. That ain’t it.” But I decided to stick to what I felt was dope and it worked. Here I am five years later.
What was your favorite verse on Trapsoul?
I’d probably say “Right My Wrongs.” I was going through some things with my girlfriend at the time and she sent me a message. I remember I didn’t respond and I just went to the studio and wrote that song. It was really challenging to record, but that’s probably one of my favorites.
My personal favorite was “Been that Way.”
That was my least favorite. I didn’t want that to go on the project, but it’s on there now and the fans love it. So it’s just like, “Alright. Cool.”
You had songs on Trapsoul where you showcased your rapping ability, like “Rambo” and “Sorry Not Sorry.” How do you balance doing both singing and rapping?
For me, R&B is my first love and it always will be. I fell in love with hip-hop and rap music through Lil Wayne. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wayne, but you know, I heard only the radio singles, but I only listened to it because I felt people would judge me for listening to R&B in my headphones. So I said, “Damn. Let me mix it up a little bit.”
It got to a point for me blending rap in my music — I started calling it “Trapsoul” — but was more for me backing down from the whole role as an R&B singer, because I tried a performance and it went terrible [laughs] and I said, “I don’t wanna be a singer. I want to be an R&B artist that raps and blends the two.” That was my goal.
Over the years, you’ve had a knack for collaborating with R&B stars like Summer Walker, Jazmine Sullivan and H.E.R. What is it about working with female artists that elevates your game on a track?
Well, it’s easier working with female artists than it is with male artists [laughs]. It’s always a protective thing and people be busy and s–t, but the girls, they never hesitate to show love and be like, “Hey. I love this and I love that.” That always ends with a collaboration. I love all the songs that I’ve been able to collaborate on, including H.E.R.’s [“Could’ve Been”], Jazmine and everyone else. I got some stuff in the works that should be coming out soon.
Besides working on music during the pandemic, you managed to graduate and get your high school diploma. Talk about that experience and what it was like for you to accomplish that feat.
Quarantine obviously happened and had us all thinking, trying to figure out s–t about life or whatever, but for me, personally, it was something that I always kind of wanted to do. I wasn’t ever going to go back to school, but when I started thinking about my goals and what I wanted to accomplish in life, more of my dreams are to be in in-game design and in-game development. The only way to get into those things is if I go to school for that and maybe get an internship at one of these companies. So I was like, “Yo. I wanna get my diploma this year and I got it.” That was awesome.
I was supposed to walk onstage, and obviously COVID happened, and that would have been dope. But I’m just proud to say I did it, because sometimes it’ll just be a dream and then you’ll say, “Oh, I’m gonna do this this year or I’m gonna do that this year.” … My diploma was the one thing where I was like, I really have to do this. I’m gonna be class of 2020. That was my goal, and here I am.
Can you talk about your love for gaming? To some, that’s a hidden talent of yours.
I’ve loved gaming since I was a kid. I say R&B is my first love, but gaming is my first true real passion, hobby and first love. It wasn’t until I started getting beats from people and started talking to different students at my school who were working on music to where I started to like dabble into it. I knew I could always sing a little bit, so I was like let me dabble into the music.
Once I picked up music, I kind of forgot about gaming for a while. I was just in the studio. That was my gaming, and my hobby. I was in the studio everyday doing that, but before then, I was in my gaming chair everyday. So now, it’s just dope to be back and I love the community on Twitch. All the gamers have been so supportive of not just me and my music career, but as a gamer as well.
I feel like the pandemic played a huge role in returning you back into that space and love for gaming.
The thing is before the pandemic came, Apex Legends is a battle royale game and it came out about a year ago. I’ve been playing that for a year straight. And then quarantine happened, and now I’m just playing even more. Now it’s just about trying to turn it into something bigger because I see all these other artists doing the gaming thing, but they don’t do it how I do it, though.
You welcomed your second child earlier this year. How have you been able to enjoy fatherhood now versus the first time around?
It’s different, man. It’s super different. I’m blessed. I look up and I think, five years ago, I was working so hard to be at this point where I’m at right now, and here I am five years later making a new album. It’s hard because I’ve been in L.A. for a couple of months, so I missed her. I haven’t seen my daughter going on two months now, and that’s part of the sacrifices you gotta make, but I’m doing this now so I can be with her for the rest of her life. That’s the goal right now.
Are there any lessons you learned from being a father the first time around that you hope to incorporate now?
That’s a good question. I’ve spoiled my first daughter [laughs]. She knows I’ll get her whatever she wants. The crazy thing is, my new daughter Kelly, I’ll give her whatever she wants, but I’m trying to make sure she doesn’t think she can have whatever she wants all the time. So that’s one thing I’m trying to change up a little bit.
View this post on Instagram
You recently lost your grandmother. I’m curious as to how you’ve been able to preserve your balance during that tough time, as you’ve been open with some of your mental health struggles.
To be honest with you, man, I was worse before my grandma died than I am now. A lot worse, and I hate that it takes things like that, like somebody that you love to pass away or a significant life event for you to change the way you see things, but it really changed the way I saw things. I feel like she’s in heaven and I tweeted this, but she’s in heaven and is personally talking to God like, “Hey God. Will you heal my grandson? He’s been going through some things,” and I really feel like it’s been working. She’s been working for me and I’m working for her too.
When you last spoke to us about your album True to Self, you were very honest and hard on yourself regarding the outcome and creative process. Were you able to feel a bit more liberated building your upcoming project?
Absolutely, man. This album is a different energy. There’s a clear difference with this album and True to Self, because at that time I didn’t want to make an album. It was two years after Trapsoul came out and I was going through a lot of s–t — like, legal stuff and personal stuff. I didn’t really want to create an album at that time.
They can tell you this before and a lot of people don’t know this, but before the album even came out, I didn’t want it out. I was in the studio and I was upset. People were like, “Hey, I heard your album is done. I can’t wait to hear it,” and I was like, “Listen. Don’t even bother.” That’s what I would always tell them. That’s how I felt. I wasn’t really trying to put energy or time into it. I wasn’t really trying. It was just me being lazy. It was my C-game. I can’t afford to bring my C-game now — not for my two daughters. It’s just my A-game here on out.
The crazy thing is, you landed a No. 1 album with True to Self.
You know, the No. 1 just came from people being so excited for a follow-up to Trapsoul. That was dope as hell. I didn’t even know what a No. 1 album was. I didn’t know what that meant. There’s so many things that I’m learning about the music industry that I just didn’t quite understand. I had people reaching out, like, “Congrats on your No. 1 album.” It was bittersweet, because I didn’t give a s–t about that album. So it was like, “Damn. I got a No. 1, but not on the album that I give a s–t about.”
If you can pick one word to title this chapter in your life, what word would that be and why?
Great question. Let me think on that for a second. I would use this word, but I don’t think it’s the right one. I would say something that has to do with the word “time,” because that’s something that I’ve been so conscious about lately. I’m in the studio and there’s a clock staring right at me, and I would always check it to see how long I’ve been in the studio, or when I should start on this next song, but I wrote a sticky note and I put the time is now. When you look up, five years passed since Trapsoul, and that just blows my mind every time I think about it. I can’t think of the word but I love that question and I’m gonna think about that word.
Do you also put notes on milestones or on where you want to be a few years from now?
Definitely. I’m 27, and about to be 28 in four months. I’ve been doing this s–t for five years now. I just told myself I love music, and that’s the one thing about working on this album — it really showed me how much I really love music, how fun it can be, and how the possibilities are endless in the studio. I’m the only person who decides the limits, so I come in here with no limits, everyday.
But for the next two years in my life before I turn 30, I’m gonna just give this music thing my all, have fun with it like I was doing when I was 17 years old. Because I don’t wanna be doing this s–t forever, to be honest with you. I love making music, but don’t care for being an artist as much, but I fans who really appreciate me as an artist and I do it for them, really. That’s the only reason why I do it. Otherwise, I’d be in the shadows, like I have been technically, and I’d be writing for songs for people. At 30, I plan on pursuing my video game career.