Austin Brown prefers the mountains over the beach.
From “My Cabana” all the way through last year’s Campaign, Ty Dolla $ign’s existence has long seemed a contradiction in terms. He entered the mainstream on the slick, thumping West Coast “ratchet” productions of DJ Mustard—but deep album and mixtape cuts reveal him to be an attentive R&B craftsman, a multi-instrumentalist neo-soul aficionado with a musical pedigree (his father was a session musician for numerous funk, jazz, and R&B artists). He makes a point in interviews of clarifying that he’s a singer, not a rapper—but he collaborates with mostly rappers, and his verses hold undeniable bars and a flow that aspiring MCs would kill for.
Perhaps, most notably, he’s become famous for a persona that’s dismissive, if not utilitarian, towards women and the sex he has with them—but even his nastiest songs are laced with self-aware winks; he seems refreshingly approachable in interviews, and he’s protested that he only says “disrespectful shit” because he’s found it gets the best reaction from women he plays songs for them. Every Ty Dolla $ign project, then, has found its own way to negotiate and resolve these paradoxes, to varying degrees of success.
Beach House 3, his latest studio album, is no different, but it stands apart from any of his previous projects for its strikingly coherent sound and nuanced, confident portrait of Ty’s interiority. His last studio album, 2015’s Free TC, was a sprawling embarrassment of riches, offering everything from a sweeping piano-and-strings funk ode to Los Angeles (“LA”); to a weirdly poignant guitar ballad concerning Ty’s player status (“Horses In The Stable”); to a dissonant trap anthem that made having “hoes in different area codes” sound menacing (“Blasé”). It aimed to serve as both Ty’s world-beating hit debut and his bid for respect as a neo-soul auteur, the mixed messaging of which served to hinder both despite a warm critical and commercial reception.
By contrast, Beach House 3 is laser-focused, with not a song out of place (yes, all twenty) and a thematic unity—aided by five blurrily produced interludes with titles relating to fame—that lends the album a loose but compelling narrative structure. Gone, for the most part, are the old-school soul tributes, the strings, and the live drums. The guitar-strumming crooner character Ty debuted on Free TC remains, but only to bookend the album on its first and last songs, “Famous” and “Message In A Bottle.” Otherwise, Ty allows himself to luxuriate and stew alike over a soup of hi-fi, neon-streaked production, locating the midpoint between strip club and slow jam in song after song and filling the space with indelible songcraft and his most consistently dexterous vocal showcase yet.
Ty’s voice has always been an understated powerhouse, notable not for its range but rather its adaptability—an intuitive relationship between flow and rhythm, and a distinct, identifiable, raspy tone. But his early career-defining hits, “Or Nah” and “Paranoid,” were bound by the limitations of ratchet music: minimal synth melody, deep bass, some finger snaps, and a hushed, insistent delivery from the rapper or singer. While effective, it had the unintended effect of highlighting Ty’s flow over his penchant for melody, relegating him in the public eye to the confused “rapper/singer” category—something Ty defiantly course corrects for throughout Beach House 3.
The first (and so far, biggest) single off the album, “Love U Better,” takes the ratchet music script and flips it on its head, with DJ Mustard disrupting his usual beat structure with a stilted sub-bass before throwing in a piano, a chipmunk soul sample of “I Can Love You” by Mary J. Blige, then letting Ty loose over the whole concoction to jubilantly warble through the chorus and the bridge. Little moments for Ty to let loose like that abound, from the way he breaks up and away from the core melody of “Don’t Judge Me” as he recounts his personal rags-to-riches story in miniature, to the strained “kissing and touch-iiing” of the pre-chorus to “Droptop in the Rain.” “All The Time” in particular holds what is perhaps Ty’s most impressive pure R&B vocal yet, running up and down the scale and indulging just enough vibrato with simultaneous passion and grace.
To be clear, Beach House 3 isn’t a goopy, wholesome sing-fest by any stretch of the imagination. These are explicitly detailed bangers about sex and power, in which you profess commitment by telling your girl you’re willing to—scratch that, that you’d love to—eat her pussy. Ty may not consider himself a rapper, but he deals in the tropes of hip-hop, touching on drugs, group sex, fame, and wealth, even as he makes it all sound syrupy sweet. To square that with his newfound willingness to sang unhindered, Ty abandons the brooding, muted browns of hyphy and ratchet that dominated both last year’s Campaign and the more hype Free TC tracks, in favor of the smeared purples and blues (not to mention the percussiveness) of chart-facing trap.
Recruiting Atlanta beatsmiths and musically flexible hip-hop hitmakers alike, Ty uses them to architect a sound that sustains groove even as tiny melodies and beat patterns collapse in on themselves, an accessible, contemporary mode nevertheless possessing the intricacy of his earlier neo-soul compositions. In one, Mike WiLL Made-It’s “Dawsin’s Creek,” a seemingly trivial woodblock sound introduces rhythmic and melodic counterpoint while what sounds like a theremin psychedelicizes the negative space; in another, Hitmaka and Southside’s “Lil Favorite,” the lullaby romance of the melody and chugging hi-hats are interspersed with claves that add a playful lilt.
For his part, Ty floats in and around these arrangements with ease, flipping knotty braggadocio into raw melodic power on a dime—in the aforementioned “Dawsin’s Breek,” his deadpan “I’ve got a brand new coupe” builds through repetition and a smattering of adlibs into the smooth-as-butter chorus, as he paints a surreal, evocative portrait of his struggle to stay faithful to his new “main chick” (“she like, ‘no new hoes’”).
Sonically and tonally, the album feels at times like a spiritual successor to Jeremih’s Late Nights: The Album, which recast loverman themes into contemporary hip-hop’s hallucinogenic hyperreality. But where Jeremih (who’s featured on “Dawsin’s Breek” and makes strangely little impression) whispered filthy nothings in your ear, rendering the bedroom an all the more intimate space by virtue of the freewheeling world of the club, Ty has in the past reveled in his candid exhibitionism, bragging to you and about you in equal measure while indulging in sex that’s just as preoccupied with power as the spaces in which it’s sought.
Even on Beach House 3, he steals some guy’s girl (“Love U Better”), fucks his ex after calling his main chick (“Ex”), and in quick succession rattles off that he: could take your hoe, will fuck a girl and then fuck her friends, and just banged some twins (“Stare”). All along the way, he details just how he fucks them, the pleasure both received and provided serving not just as justification for his transgressions, but as a further boast—he knows exactly how to please, and he’ll let you know about it.
And yet, Beach House 3 also finds Ty grappling at length with his public persona for the first time in memory, a lyrical complement to his freshly unrestricted vocals. For every moment of hypermasculine authority, there’s a complementary insecurity that pops up, ranging from the fear that he’ll be judged for his drug habits to a neurotic warning for his girl not to cheat on him.
The lyrics are dotted with signs of stress and overwork, and the signature paranoia of fame can be seen encroaching at various points—following a proficient, if boilerplate, few bars from Wiz Khalifa on “Stare,” Ty interjects with a hushed “keep an eye on the snakes though/keep a watch full of icicles.” Even “Ex,” the aforementioned infidelity banger, seems prompted by exhaustion—“I done had a long day,” Ty notes, later admitting “I know, I be up to no good/Baby I know, I’m just misunderstood.” If the perk of shamelessness and self-promotion—in relationships and the world of fame alike—is the affirmation and attention you receive, as Ty describes in “Famous,” the drawback is how easy it is to be used as you once used others.
Many artists have realized this, or even made it their primary subject—shout out to OVOXO. But just as Ty is an R&B nerd in the guise of a rap star, so too does he value publicity as a kink more than as an end to itself, and by keeping that in mind and subtly interrogating the difference between power play and power trip, he evades the histrionics of those artists. The growth starts small—distinctions until now absent between main and side chicks, a relative lack of explicit put-downs, a verse by 24hrs on “Don’t Sleep On Me” that inverts the “fear of infidelity” narrative by inhabiting the role of a girl who’s proud of his success, but worried he’ll leave her behind.
But in the back half of the album the walls fully come down, with a stretch of plaintive love songs, from “So Am I” to “Side Effects,” that humanize Ty and ground him. His paranoia and stress are still present, along with his lust, but he’s centered by a newfound commitment, offsetting his fear of fame with the security of being truly known by someone. Most notable is “In Your Phone,” a swooning, Dun Deal-produced duet between Ty and real-life romantic partner/Fifth Harmony member Lauren Jauregui.
Jauregui’s clear-minded verse (“Got some nerve saying I’m the challenge”) counters Ty’s self-importance with ease, commiserates, and, as the only female voice on an album obsessed with masculinity, offers the much-needed lyrical perspective of one of Ty’s sex partners. And all that’s not to mention two of Ty’s sharpest stabs at pop yet, “So Am I” and “Side Effects,” which manage to employ the chart sound du jour of Day-Glo dancehall not to cheaply signify broad commercial appeal, but rather as a refreshingly optimistic and romantic extension of Beach House 3’s natural palette, casting the rest of the album in a breezy light.
It’s a sweetly ironic twist, in a way: the three tracks mentioned all link back to Ty’s collaboration with Fifth Harmony on “Work From Home,” a similarly Caribbean fizz of a track that was his highest charting appearance yet, and which seemed liable to consign him to “pop commodity” status—a vibe for hire when the market called for smooth sleaze. Instead, that serendipitous moment, along with Ty’s subsequent relationship with Jauregui, seems to have helped Ty grow into himself, musically and emotionally.
At least for the time being, Ty has stopped implicitly atoning for hit songs he finds personally middling by writing (admittedly effective) neo-soul self-indulgences. Instead, he’s developed that internal contradiction, between the people-pleaser and the hopeless romantic, from subtext into text. Who knows if it’ll last, but for now, Ty seems invigorated.
It’s unclear what Ty’s commercial ambitions for Beach House 3 are. Despite his claim that the five “Famous” interludes will be “platinum interludes,” none of the songs on the album seem the right fit for the Hot 100 right now—not chill enough, too short, no hooks quite, uh, hooky enough. But that might be the point.
Elliptical and fragmented as many of the songs are, the project works best when read as a song cycle, loosely chronicling Ty’s evolving relationship to both fame and the intimacy it so often acts as an imperfect substitute for. By seeking the latter over the former, over his most glossy production job yet, Beach House 3 asks its audience to accept Ty Dolla $ign for who he is: not a pop star but a staunch populist, a man ceaselessly thinking of how best to please in his personal and professional life alike, while taking care not to lose himself in the process.