Why the Hell Is Bryson Tiller so Popular?

Young Tiller sold out Radio City Music Hall two nights in a row, but what is it about his music that is so appealing, exactly?
April 25, 2016, 3:33pmUpdated on April 26, 2016, 9:27am

Bryson Tiller performing at Webster Hall in February / Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

The screams are unbelievable. Just the utterance of his name is enough to prompt them. Just him starting the show by muttering “yeah” into the microphone is enough to send shockwaves of them through the auditorium. The opening notes of any song are instantly drowned out by the screams. Did you even know Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, had this many songs? The mezzanine did, and they are shouting the words to all of them like a backing chorus. People are clutching at their chests, feeling every word. Their phones are out, recording every moseying step Tiller’s silhouette takes onstage. And I really don’t get it.

Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, played Radio City Music Hall on Thursday and then again the next night, also to a sellout crowd. As he noted onstage, it was his third time playing back-to-back sellout shows in New York City, the most recent being just two months ago at Webster Hall, a venue a quarter the size. Radio City Music Hall holds 6,000 people, and it is a marvel: a gem of Art Deco architecture, shaped like a bandshell for a statelier future than ours, a steampunk megaphone of a room, with dramatic gold curtains. It is a place where the men’s bathroom is called the Gentlemen’s Lounge, although there is precious little gentlemanly lounging to be done when you’re in the same building as the new patron saint of Being Better Than Your Man. The cost of entering the premises alone is an implied minimum of one (1) slide into the DMs.

But anyway: Bryson Tiller sold Radio City out, twice, because Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, is very, very popular. Earlier in the day Thursday, it was announced that his debut album Trapsoul had passed the sales mark to be certified gold, and two of his singles, “Don’t” and “Exchange,” have been perched in the upper reaches of the Billboard Hot 100 for months. There is not an easy explanation for this success, since Tiller’s music is both insufferable and unimaginative. If you took the basic traits people are drawn to in Drake’s music—the murky sonics, the comfortable blend of rapping and singing, the intensely solipsistic emotional gravity—while siphoning out the personality and amplifying the pettiness, you would get Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller. He is the J. Cole to Drake’s Kanye: the guy who takes one portion of a more talented predecessor’s schtick and runs with it to highly successful but tiring ends. Which maybe that’s exactly the easy explanation: His music sounds obvious. Trapsoul sits right at the intersection of R&B’s and hip-hop’s current, respective shifts toward sounding like each other.

Does that seem harsh? Is it unfair to go after a guy who sings things like, “I come in your dream / Make you cum in your jeans… Lose the joker and summon the king / Better hope I don't come in between / Dope dick will turn you to a fiend”? Are we wrong if we’re inclined to sleep on the guy who raps “I remember when they slept on me: memory foam”? Would I be remiss to disagree with the assessment I heard once of Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, as a sentient Nike Dri-Fit hat? Perhaps. The Dri-Fit hat thing is funny, though, you have to admit.

While the finer points of Tiller’s persona tend to remain tucked away beneath his perpetually downward-slanted cap, he is eager to remind fans of his truly remarkable come up, a feel-good narrative that it would feel bad to mock. The story is: He went from being a Louisville Papa John’s employee and young father with a dream to the biggest new R&B artist since The Weeknd in the span of basically a year, mostly on the strength of “Don’t.” That rise is not only the subject of many of his songs, it was also the focus of a letter he penned and handed out to audience members at the show and of a couple of his brief onstage monologues. The insistence on the story might seem draining if it didn’t so clearly resonate. Like a startup founder’s elevator pitch or a political candidate’s stump speech, Tiller’s message is one shorn of complexity for maximum reach. It’s all right there: Trapsoul. You hear it and you know what you’re getting. You don’t need to know the details. There will be massive rolling 808s and a plaintively smooth voice and a persona that is equal parts sensitive and snotty.

One reason critics have largely overlooked Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, must certainly be that there are few ways to describe his music more effectively than he himself has already done without resorting to making jokes about the singer having the charisma of a damp washcloth. Which he does, but so does your man, probably. Your man is out here, wandering through the wilderness, fucking lost, man. Your man is texting you all the wrong things. Your man is buying Trapsoul merch—a white shirt that just says TRAPSOUL and costs a very reasonable $25—at the show. Your man, it should go without saying, is just waiting to be replaced by Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, who promises attentiveness, conversation, sex in the backseat of the car, etc. etc. Maybe that’s why Tiller is so popular: The bar for masculine expression is low, and, fellas, whatever you’re doing is not cutting it.

The language of Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, is a nebula of constant relationship drama, a Mad Libs of petty DMs: There’s the other boyfriend who isn’t putting in enough effort, the bitches being fucked, the girls playing with his feelings, the people asking for favors, and on and on and so on, a vague blueprint upon which anyone’s tale of personal betrayal can be overlaid. So Bryson Tiller sounds of the moment and he fits whatever the moment may be, which is why, there we all were, watching him go Rambo in front of the biggest LED screen I’ve ever seen. It was projecting bright red light and images of raindrops and, finally, the forest, calling to mind those Instagram posts of scenery paired with platitudes that Tiller’s lyrics so boldly evoke.

The show itself, it must be said, is a sensory thrill. There are obvious, talent-oriented reasons that Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, is more famous than many of his rap contemporaries: Namely, he has a good voice, and he sings and raps confidently. He doesn’t need a backing track, and his drum setup sounds massive. He may wander around the stage like a bored teenager browsing a bookstore, but he has the lighting and fog machines to make his silhouette look cool, and he’ll catch bursts of energy that hint at showmanship, much as his songs have flashes of brilliance that hint at something that could be truly spectacular in more practiced or ambitious hands. “Exchange”—that one has a fantastic hook, but then he ruins the whole thing by talking about scrolling through Instagram, where romance goes to be shaded into oblivion.

The best approximation of Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, I can get from his music is one of a guy who, apart from his music, is pretty average and unshowy, most comfortable in front of a computer or phone screen. He raps at one point, “the cool kids from high school can’t sit with me now,” which suggests that he was not cool in high school. At another point he compares finding a “down bitch” to finding good beats on popular music-sharing site Soundclick, which suggests that Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, has spent a lot of time on the internet. During his concert, he talked about ex girlfriends reaching out to him via DM rather than text. Maybe that’s why Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, is so popular: He does not have the outsized ego and personality that usually come with being a massive star, and his music has a correspondingly direct simplicity. It’s obvious, but being obvious well is hard! Kanye West ushered in an era of the everyman rap star and Drake continued it, but both do so through the lens of intense self-examination. Bryson Tiller is a logical extension of the idea taken in a different direction, the guy who is such an everyman that his everymanhood subsumes his personality to nothingness.

In a way, there’s something cool about this approach in the current celebrity-obsessed era of music, where the substance of a pop star’s music is less likely to be an indicator of fame than their Instagram feed. The idea of a shadowy studio figure becoming a massive pop star in this era of overexposure is fascinating, and Bryson Tiller, a.k.a. Young Tiller, is a convincing argument that good songs trump all. His music may be obvious and broadly impersonal, but doing that well is hard! And doing that successfully more or less on your own is also hard. Maybe he is the escape from music as extension of the pages of TMZ, a return to the veneration of the art of songcraft above all else. Then again, Tiller’s platitudinal tweets all go insanely viral, and I spent the time before the concert watching the girls next to me scroll through his Instagram. People are drawn to Bryson Tiller, a.ka. Young Tiller, for his insipid brand.

So why the fuck is Bryson Tiller popular? I still don’t know, honestly. I went to the show and I wrote all of this, and I still don’t know. He sounds like the version of music that is popular right now that would play in the background of a movie because they can’t license the real thing. But whatever the plot of that movie is—probably a relationship melodrama involving a lot of shady behavior, playing in a theater full of people doing quiet sex stuff—it’s a blockbuster, and good for Bryson Tiller, man.

Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.