A Case for Ty Dolla $ign: The Reigning King of R&B
The question that's lingered at the forefront of public music discourse this month has been: "who is the current king of R&B?" We make the case for Ty Dolla $ign.
Around the time Ty Dolla $ign’s “Paranoid” peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2014, I can recall seeing possés of men snapped and leaned together in two-stepping lines, during a Spring Break trip to Panama City Beach, Florida. Later that summer, my grandmother asked me about a song that goes, “I think these bitches tryna set me up.” In another car passing ours, “Paranoid” was playing on Charleston’s Z93 Jamz. My grandmother kept one hand on the steering wheel and started snapping with the other.
She married her husband and started having children during the heyday eras of Marvin Gaye and Al Green. Through her generation, my mother’s generation, and my generation, my grandmother saw the genre of R&B shapeshift into almost unrecognizable forms. But one thing remained constant; that feeling.
What she was able to recognize in Ty Dolla $ign wasn’t merely personal proof of his relevance and importance.
With the genre’s history, and precedential requisites set forth by legends and innovators in full consideration, and his momentous year in music, the artist best fit for the crowning of current King of R&B is Tyrone William Griffin Jr. — a.k.a. Ty Dolla $ign.
The question that’s lingered at the forefront of public music discourse this month has been: “Who is the current king of R&B?” But as we rack our brains, and cull through our catalogs for the name that suits our sentiments, what we’d be remiss to ask, before anything, is: What does it take to be the King of R&B?
Let’s delve into the requirements, as set forth by the genre’s precedent makers. As exhibited by the likes of Luther Vandross, Charlie Wilson, and Al Green, a King of R&B should be able to have a unique and soulful vocal ability— not only for their time of reign but one that transcends generations. As exhibited by the penmanship of Babyface, PARTYNEXTDOOR, The Weeknd, and James Fauntleroy, a King of R&B needs to have lyrics that not only connect to listeners but explain the dynamics of love. Stevie Wonder and Donny Hathaway flexed how it’s a bonus for a King of R&B to be trained in playing a musical instrument.
As showcased by the discography of Michael Jackson and Prince, a King of R&B has to have the ability to insert the genre into others— their sound blending and weaving into rock, pop, folk, and all other avant-garde forms with documented black roots. Jamie Foxx and John Legend transformed into primetime kingpins— who would eventually amass Oscars and Grammys (Legend completing the EGOT)— as a King of R&B is able to use their success to branch their R&B-based talents out to higher viewership and acclaim.
The collective chart-toppers of Ne-Yo, The-Dream, and T-Pain showcase that a King of R&B needs to capture No. 1 hits— not only for themselves on the Billboard Hot 100 and R&B charts, but also radio airplay, and for other artists as either a featured role or a part of the songwriting and producing process. When we watch the likes of Usher and Chris Brown perform on live TV award shows to arena concerts and festivals, we know a King of R&B possess his own signature stage presence which captivates audiences. Marvin Gaye and Frank Ocean represent that musically, a King of R&B should be aware of the current state of affairs, unafraid to ask “What’s Going On,” unafraid to give access to their private life through conceptual albums, and unafraid to embrace their relentless “Sexual Healing” powers.
In prior history— before Jacquees made his grand video declaration that he’s this generation’s King of R&B and reiterated it in the presence of R&B legend, Keith Sweat — this debate once existed, thanks to Whitney Houston. At the 14th annual Soul Train Music Awards, while accepting the 2000 Artist of the Decade trophy for “outstanding artistic contributions and leadership by a female in the 1990s,” The Voice of the Industry knighted her husband, Bobby Brown, with the title. Houston’s endearing claim puzzled critics and fans of R&B music alike, but in essence, her proclamation made sense.
Although he wasn’t the reigning King at the start of the aughts— having released his (at-the-time) last album, Forever, three years prior— Brown was at one point the King of R&B. We can’t be cruel to the the fact that Brown— who was nicknamed “the Bad Boy of R&B” during his solo heyday post-New Edition’s first phase— templated the present generation of today’s male R&B archetype. Although he dominated the emerging New Jack Swing scene with fly fashion and swag, there was a slight push back to Brown’s iconic style and brand of R&B. Had he declared he was the King of R&B back in 1988, the reaction might have been similar to what we experienced online amongst the present crop.
If looking for a co-sign from another elite diva who has made her mark on R&B— one who has undoubtedly influenced the industry’s other genres— look to Mariah Carey. On her most recent body of work, Caution, the songstress plays tastemaker, picking what she deems to be en-vogue — past, present, and future. Since her personal request for Ol’ Dirty Bastard on the remix of 1995’s “Fantasy,” a feature on a Mariah Carey track means “you’re something special.” The hit-making chanteuse noted differences in the industry of today from when she first started 30 years ago. In an interview with Music Choice last month, Carey revealed that the most important thing when listening to an artist is the audience’s ability to feel their “impact.” Another figure that has made his own mark in R&B, Diddy, would second the notion that the genre, in particular, has that immeasurable power— as he weighed in on the present debate charging, “a couple of hits ain’t gon’ do it.” To him, R&B is about “sharing your soul… You have to be vulnerable.”
Diddy didn’t reveal his contender for today’s King of R&B— in fact, he charged that “R&B’s not even being made right now.” Carey, on the contrary, covertly makes a case for her top pick with a single off her latest album, Caution. On “The Distance,” Ty Dolla $ign croons alongside Mariah Carey about “going all the way for a long time” in a relationship. Despite the odds, and what the peanut gallery of friends and skeptics believe, their love is able to stand the test of time.
“The Distance” is a song representative of one facet of R&B— it manages a tightrope walk on trap&B, a subgenre that receives just as much flack as it does receive mainstream success. Many still argue that trap&B’s evolutionary shift is a disservice to the genre’s past legacy and that predominantly trap&B artists like Ty Dolla $ign shouldn’t be eligible for the crown. But what many also tend to forget is that R&B meant for mainstream mass consumption relies on the music taste of younger generations creating and consuming the art. This has been the case since the days of The Temptations as Motown soul heartthrobs, to D’ Angelo and Maxwell as neo-soul paramours.
On-to how Ty Dolla $ign meets the aforementioned list of requirements— and how he fares competitively against his contemporary R&B peers— let’s delve into his discography. Ty Dolla $ign made his mainstream splash on 2013’s “Paranoid,” with current R&B’s secret weapon, DJ Mustard (his imprint is traceable in Ella Mai’s “Boo’d Up,” Rihanna’s “Needed Me,” and Mariah Carey’s “With You”). It’s slow creeping West Coast RnBass groove meets southern crunk&B, aided by Ty Dolla $ign’s soulful, molasses flow.
“Paranoid” peaked at No. 29 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, but it fared better as a Top 10 hit on the R&B and hip-hop charts. His follow up single, the laid-back anthem, “Or Nah,” contained vulgar propositions from a Bo$$ playing the game, over a squeaking bed sound effect. The song became a No. 12 hit for R&B charts and inducted a staple phrase into the pop vernacular of Instagram and Twitter users worldwide.
Ty Dolla $ign’s charting trajectory also aligns with how many Kings of R&B didn’t instantly start out with No. 1 hits, but eventually grew to become household names. While they climbed their ways up the universal mainstream ladder, their R&B brands circulated well in the rotations of black audiences. With more of a playa from the Himalayas approach to his sound, Ty Dolla $ign can be reminiscent of the late Nate Dogg; making R&B with striking tinctures of hip-hop
Two weeks before Black Friday of November 2015, Ty Dolla $ign released his first studio album Free TC. The album not only explores turbulency and passion in love but also places a lens on the prison system in America, bestowing the experiences of his incarcerated brother, who has his own acapella solo on the record. Ironically, Ty Dolla $ign currently faces his own legal troubles, with indictments for drug possession and the possibility of 15 years behind bars.
Opening with a track called “LA,” Free TC travels sonically with Ty Dolla $ign’s regional hometown sound. He sings alongside another Queen of R&B, Brandy, and has Kendrick Lamar guesting a verse (á la Dr. Dre’s Compton). On the album, he collectively collaborates with various Kings of R&B: Babyface, Trey Songz, and Jagged Edge, to name a few. Diddy even makes an appearance alongside Kanye West. Free TC becomes a capsule of R&B history— a bit underrated upon its release, but still managing a No. 135 position on the year-end Billboard 200 albums chart in 2016.
Ty Dolla $ign even has a vocal showdown with R. Kelly on “Actress.” Arguably, R. Kelly could be in the running for King of R&B, as Dave Chappelle opines. But what stops R. Kelly from donning the crown is a long, documented history of sexual abuse scandals, and it becomes troublesome to crown someone the King of R&B— a title given to connoisseurs of love and affection— as these allegations and discoveries continue to trump his musical legacy. Remember, a King of R&B needs to have universal appeal, not divisive, polarizing, concerning popularity.
In recent years, the music industry has been suffocated by artists and labels’ penchant to consistently release new music — searching for the standout song that will gain charting and radio traction. This metric makes it more difficult to decide who the present King of R&B is when we factor in Billboard stats and sales in today’s economy. Through these murky waters, Ty Dolla $ign still manages to emerge with a consistency respectable enough for the standards of today.
After Free TC and into 2016, he recognized his brand of R&B needed to cross over to rhythmic pop. It’s here, where Ty Dolla $ign started gaining the chart-toppers for himself and others, while soundtracking the mainstream with R&B sensibilities. Fifth Harmony’s “Work From Home,” would be the pop girl group’s highest charting single before their inevitable disbandment. Ty Dolla $ign contributed a cameo verse and a songwriting credit for their hit, which landed at No. 4 on Billboard. Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s comeback tour-de-force Plato O Plomo featured “Money Showers,” which reigned at No. 14 on hip-hop airplay charts and Love & Hip Hop primetime spots. Ty Dolla $ign has also maneuvered his style of R&B onto international music scenes. He gained a stronger presence in the UK, collaborating with Charli XCX (and Tinashe) on the RnBass and bubblegum pop record “Drop That Kitty.” Sweden’s Zara Larsson featured Ty Dolla $ign on “So Good.” Jason Derulo enlisted Nicki Minaj and Ty Dolla $ign for the dancehall and tropical-tinged “Swalla.” Even rock— with Imagine Dragons’ “Sucker For Pain” hip-hop and nu-metal fest on wax— received a dosage of Ty Dolla $ign’s R&B flavor. This has all lead to a No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and other countries’ charts this year, on Post Malone’s “Psycho.
As an artist, who is skilled in playing bass electric guitar, Ty Dolla $ign lends a more soulful approach to his craft— one that resembles the way Daniel Caesar, Miguel, Sampha and SiR implement elements of old school rock-n-B into their sounds. This stems from an early childhood passion of looping cassette tapes and producing fresh beats to live instruments. He appears in the songwriting credits of Rihanna’s “FourFiveSeconds,” a tune which applies this practice with a new school approach. Featuring Kanye West and Paul McCartney, the pop-folk ditty about collecting yourself before wildin’ out in a fit of rage peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 and No. 1 on R&B charts.
This moment placed Ty Dolla $ign in a league amongst legends and heavyweights, as well as the soulful newcomers who emerged during the period between 2016 and 2018. For the argument of primetime heavyweights, the 2015 live performance of “FourFiveSeconds” is considered a noteworthy Grammy moment. This has eventually evolved into the artist performing “Psycho” alongside Post Malone at the 2018 American Music Awards. Ty Dolla $ign’s songwriting skill was showcased in front of 24.8 million viewers during the 2015 Grammy Awards. For the AMAs, he sang in front of 6.55 million viewers. His ability to craft songs that will forever be remembered in the pop culture spears beyond R&B is analogous to John Legend singing his No. 1 hit “All Of Me” at the 2014 Grammys, or Bruno Mars accepting Album of the Year for 24K Magic at the 2017’s ceremony.
It’s clear that Ty Dolla $ign is keen on preserving the legacy of R&B in any way that he can. We can look to his feature on Drake’s “After Dark,” from Scorpion as evidence. On the B-side of the 6 God’s double-disc LP, “After Dark” pays homage to the quiet storm radio format, a programming block soundtracked by Luther Vandross, Boyz II Men, Keith Sweat, Kem, and Brian McKnight. The linkage of Ty Dolla $ign’s soul with Drake’s Aaliyah-inspired, futuristic R&B— which shaped 2010’s sonic wave— is complemented by the chill of late songwriting great, Static Major.
This all leads to the showdown for today’s King of R&B: Chris Brown vs Ty Dolla $ign. Most would argue that Brown— who found instant success with his debut “Run It!” 13 years ago (and has since maintained music relevancy)— should still have the crown. And while Brown has had his forecasted run with the title in the eyes of many, it seems that Ty Dolla $ign has underlyingly challenged him — and finally won.
At the time of “Paranoid’s” success, another West Coast bop had affected the charts and pop culture alike, with a more memorable impact: Brown’s “Loyal.” Today, “Loyal” is still spinning in clubs and functions, having charted higher on the Hot 100 at No. 9. And while he danced in front of the public’s eyes, warning us about “these b*tches,” Ty Dolla $ign also earned songwriting checks for the song’s success.
Ty Dolla $ign is an integral component to Chris Brown’s present sound, and an important guest member on Brown’s team. “Loyal” controlled the summer airwaves of 2014, but by winter, Omarion’s “Post To Be,” which was also written by Ty Dolla $ign, controlled them. In 2017, Chris Brown collaborated with Big Sean and Ty$ on “Play No Games,” which has a 90s R&B meets hip-hop feel similar to Jodeci, Case, and Donnell Jones. Sampling Guy’s “Piece of My Love,” the trio parodies the sitcom Martin in the music video.
Later that year, an interesting showdown occurred that some R&B fans may not have noticed. Chris Brown released his 45-track album Heartbreak on a Full Moon on Halloween. This came four days after Ty Dolla $ign released his 20-track, second studio album, Beach House 3. Though Heartbreak charted higher at No. 3 (vs. No. 11)— and with fewer days in the sales tracking week— the cohesiveness and growth on one project stood out over the others.
This is evident when comparing their tracks “Grass Ain’t Greener” (from Heartbreak) and “All The Time” (from Beach House 3). Both tracks use similar warping electro-beats, albeit “Grass Ain’t Greener” was released in 2016 and both songs have different producers and lyricists. By chance, however, it seems an accidental R&B-freestyle took place between both men. Brown’s vocal runs are impressive, as he flexes more theatrics in his runs, but it’s the heart of the lyrics in Ty Dolla $ign’s that make him the overall victor.
It’s important to go back to what Diddy said when he gave the world his criteria for King of R&B. When singing about romance, it’s not always about “smashing” the chick— or better yet, getting the upper hand— it’s about making her feel, and gaining her affection beyond the bedroom and boardroom of love. It’s interesting that both men’s music occupies these spaces, as no singer’s material is all affection or all degrading.
However, it’s interesting that over a similar beat, Chris Brown continued his “these hoes ain’t Loyal” sentiment on “Grass Ain’t Greener,” basically matching his antagonist’s negative energy with his own; he’s upset at the woman for playing the same game he played. On “All The Time,” Ty Dolla $ign has grown from being “Paranoid” that two of his “b*tches in the club” could find out about each other. Instead, he’s confessing, “I think about you all time,” expressing that he’s envious another man is spending time with her because of his wrongdoings. That’s the begging-and-pleading essence of an R&B King at its finest.
In an age where controversy and hot takes seem to trump quality of work, Ty Dolla $ign’s career stands as a testament to the importance and perseverance of the latter. And what’s most striking about his accession to the King of R&B thrown is his humility. Unlike Jacquees, he hasn’t championed himself over his competitors, and he hasn’t interrupted or dismissed the legends who’ve paved the way for him. Instead, Ty Dolla $ign carries their torch with heart and soul. His work and consistency speak for itself— resounding louder than any social media proclamation could.
Da'Shan Smith is a pop culture writer based out of New York City. You can follow him at @nightshawn101