Early into Ty Dolla $ign’s debut full-length Free TC is a song called ‘Horses in the Stable’, which eventually feels like the unsuspecting centerpiece of the album. It’s a tender ode to the women in his little black book, painting a romantic picture out of his own philandering and applying a gauche metaphor — these ladies are the horses, the stable is his phone contacts and you best believe the word ‘ride’ appears in the lyrics — with no regard for fidelity or feelings. While his place as one of r&b’s finest practitioners of pure hedonism is what makes him so great, the concept that Ty has a varied basket from which to choose does not only pertain to who he can take to bed. It’s also deft symbolism for his ability to occupy a number of different sounds in his chosen genre without losing his identity. Free TC finds the Los Angeles crooner-composer spreading himself across a vast palette with a wide array of guests.
But bandleading is in his blood. The son of Tyrone Griffin, Sr., a member of the group Lakeside (whose ‘Fantastic Voyage’ was famously sampled by Coolio in the early 90s) and a music director for Jermaine Jackson, this has been a part of Ty’s fabric since before he could even remember. This is particularly evident on tracks like ‘Bring it Out of Me’, an EDM ballad indebted to 90s pop-house (La Bouche, Real McCoy) but still slick-tongued and informed by Teddy Riley. Elsewhere, he employs the tutelage of legend Kenneth ‘Babyface’ Edmonds on ‘Solid’, which leans toward Edmonds’ ‘When Can I See You Again’ and ‘Fire’ while maintaining Ty’s bravado. Most up-and-comers would allow Edmonds to just simply take the wheel, but, instead, their songwriting styles coalesce.
This does not mean that the expected paeans to pussy, money and weed are absent from the album and previously-released cuts like ‘Saved’, featuring E-40, and Future-Rae Sremmurd collaboration ‘Blasé’ satisfy those needs. But Ty is always at his best when he allows himself to go big. The album’s opener ‘L.A.’ is an homage to his hometown with contributions from Kendrick Lamar, Brandy and James Fauntleroy, a swooning epic similar to ‘Work’ from his Beach House EP. It is in tracks like this, with labyrinths of swelling vocal melodies, that we hear Ty’s deftness for songwriting and executing layered collaborative work.
But some of the duets on Free TC land weakly despite how good they look in their design. Singing alongside Trey Songz and R. Kelly should be a natural fit but both tracks (‘Know Ya’, ‘Actress’) find Ty at odds with his collaborator instead of finding a sweet spot. TC excels most when it sounds like Ty has the tightest grip on the reins, and handing them over to Puff Daddy and Kanye West for ‘Guard Down’ leads to another weak point. Leaning into Kanye’s recent softer sound, it comes off as more of a sketch than an actual album cut. Still, Ty finds success with Fetty Wap on ‘When I See Ya’, bringing out the ‘Trap Queen’ hit-maker’s sharpest vocals on record to date.
The album’s most profound offering is ‘Miracle’ which boasts a guest verse from Ty’s brother TC, for whom the record is named, recorded over the phone from prison. TC’s presence is weaved throughout the entire project, snippets of the two in conversation placed interstitially between almost every song. It is warm and funny, but also completely gutting to hear happiness inflected with so much pain. It’s no wonder Ty must always feel like he needs to be the life of the party.
This is, however, what Free TC and the majority of Ty’s output does best: Drown itself in a sea of carnal pleasures and create a haze where the only tangible problem in the world is trying to get him to commit. And unlike the unified, world-building sound of his mixtapes, he does not hold fast to one sonic thread here. Each track functions as a standalone example of his abilities — a perhaps important feature for his first real collection of music, but ultimately less satisfying than the nuances of his mixtape Airplane Mode, released only a few weeks earlier.
Is this a problem for Ty? It might be. He is unrivalled when he commands with cohesion. Even his live show suffers when it is just him and his DJ, Dre Sinatra, because without a band he is less controlled. Still, Free TC is a catalogue of Ty’s diverse musical abilities and a good example for those who have not heard beyond his more, forgive the term, “ratchet” yield. This is not the moment where he will become a superstar, but it’s a promising beginning to what should be a very long career.