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Louisville’s new slugger

Soulful, vulnerable, caption-ready, nonchalant — Bryson Tiller’s music is the soundtrack for a social generation

Golden State Warrior Stephen Curry is the most famous athlete in the world right now.

He’s the two-time NBA MVP — must-watch TV every time he takes the court. He’s just completed the greatest offensive regular season in NBA history. His eldest daughter, Riley, is America’s sweetheart and his wife is a trending topic every time she seasons a piece of chicken. He’s turned the trick shot into an every-game occurrence, prompting friends to shove phones with the latest viral Curry Vine in each other’s faces. You also can’t go a commercial break without seeing some product he’s endorsing, from Under Armour to health insurance to Muscle Milk.

Then Curry went down with that freak knee injury. On a Sunday afternoon, he slipped in a pool of sweat on national TV. This was during Game 4 of the first round of the NBA playoffs. Everyone saw it. Curry’s knee was immediately the biggest story in the NBA. Bigger than Cleveland Cavalier LeBron James. Bigger than Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant. Big. The day after the injury Curry tweeted: “Thanks 4 all the prayers & messages. Can feel all the positive energy. God is Great! All things considered I’m Gonna be alright! #DubNation.”

As of this writing that post was retweeted 31,000 times.

Three days later, on another side of the internet, a man named Bryson Tiller may have been sitting on his couch. Whatever the case, he decided to, seemingly apropos of nothing, tweet out “i watched your snapchat story on accident fyi.”

It’s been retweeted 46,000 times.

On April 9, Tiller tweeted, “I don’t understand love.” It was retweeted 38,000 times.

His Feb. 3 tweet, “mood: it’s whatever,” was retweeted 90,000 times. Tiller’s breakthrough song, Don’t has been streamed over 25 million times at Soundcloud alone. His current album, TRAPSOUL, is certified platinum and has been streamed over 600 million times worldwide. These are the kinds of numbers that garner really big rings.

Tiller, 23, is hip-hop attitude draped in R&B couture.

The most modern of artists, Tiller rose from the chaos of Soundcloud, emerged from a heated bidding war between Drake and Timbaland only to sign instead with RCA records, a label founded in 1929. Your favorite artists want to make music with Tiller — see Fat Joe and Fabolous and the Weeknd — he’s among the most buzzed-about new artists in music. Tiller’s ascension came thanks to e-word-of-mouth. He leveraged Soundcloud’s 200 million users and extreme shareability into making his songs mainstream hits. Soundcloud is massively popular among teenagers. They gravitated to Tiller’s music and shared his songs across social media platforms all over the internet. Soon Don’t was charting on Billboard and a new army of rabid fans seemed to sprout from the Wi-Fi every day, hanging on to every one of his words.

Tiller calls himself “Pen Griffey” because his lyrics are a perfect and timely mix of the two genres — home runs. His lyrics, while delivered like a vocalist from the golden age of ’90s R&B, reflect a reluctance to be totally vulnerable in heartbreak. He resorts often to a hip-hopesque I-don’t-really-need-you-anyway vibe. When he sings about his exes or broken relationships, you never get the feeling that he’s truly hurting, or lost. Instead, he’s brushing off his shoulders and moving on. It’s extremely successful. These are exactly the lyrics his fans want to hear, transcribe and use as Instagram captions.

It was only 18 months ago that Tiller was working at a Louisville, Ky., Papa John’s.

He’d tried his hand at music in 2011, releasing a mixtape called Killer Instinct when he was 17. And while that led to local buzz, and some performances around Louisville, music didn’t seem sustainable as a career. And when his daughter was born, Tiller had to focus on money. “I just stopped,” He told DJ Booth in October. “I was like, ‘You know what? This ain’t for me.’ ” So besides the pizza gig, he started working at UPS to make ends. One day his friends, Stephon, aka @ContactSwad3, and Smitty, aka @iWorkTheHardest, gave him $600 for recording the equipment that he used to make last year’s influential, bouncy, moody Don’t. Shawty you deserve what you been missing / Looking at you I’m thinking he must be tripping / Play this song for him/ Tell him just listen. The single caught fire on Soundcloud, and has now been streamed there over 25 million times. By October, he released TRAPSOUL (RCA). The album sold 500,000 copies by March and was platinum a month later. The project has racked up more than 600 million streams worldwide.

Tiller calls himself “Pen Griffey” because his lyrics are perfect and timely mix of the hip-hop and R&B — home runs.

Relationships play out over social media now more than ever. We’ve all seen our friends, as they go through breakups, get dressed to go out on a Saturday night and post a picture on Instagram — knowing the ex will see the picture and catch feelings. Tiller provides the soundtrack to that Saturday night. He admitted as much on “Exchange” when he said, Everywhere she go they playin’ my song / That’s why I say the things that I say/ That way I know you can’t ignore me. When he “breaks up” in a song, he doesn’t beg. Instead he moves on to the next woman because he can do that — girl get the f— from me / I know you thought we had something special / but you don’t mean nothing to me he sing/raps on Sorry Not Sorry. The music is also superaspirational — cars and clothes, which is at the heart of so much of hip-hop’s appeal.

Bryson Tiller performs at Webster Hall on February 22, 2016 in New York City.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage Bryson Tiller performs at Webster Hall on February 22, 2016 in New York City.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage

Now in fairness, the lines between rap and R&B started to blur in the early ’90s. After Method Man and Mary J. Blige collaborated on the groundbreaking 1994 I’ll Be There for You/You’re All I Need to Get By, the genres began a slow crash into a blend. Soon rappers were singing and singers were rapping. Lauryn Hill’s mix of rap and R&B Miseducation nabbed her an Album of The Year Grammy in 1998. Outkast did the same with 2003’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below, which is also certified diamond. By the time Kanye West dropped 808s And Heartbreaks in 2008 and Drake’s emergence in 2009 (which also coincided with when I became a full-fledged, dating, loving and heartbroken adult) Rap&B was a genre all its own.

Tiller was 5 when The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill was released and 10 when Speakerboxxx dropped. So he was raised during a time of blurred lines. He didn’t grow up, as many of us a few years older than him did, having to pick one or the other. Tiller was born into a universe of hard-edged rap over soulful backdrops — and his fans are maniacs for what he does with it. In January, just three months after TRAPSOUL’s release, tickets for a Tiller show at London’s KOKO sold out in one minute. That’s a Beyoncé-like quickness. And this Louisville singer is making music with 140-character limits as a part of his consciousness — and the outrage from fans who missed out on tickets flooded timelines. There were screenshots of hiked-up ticket prices. Tiller fans were losing their minds, having Twitter meltdowns and meme-ing their sadness for the world to see.

These are the lyrics Tiller’s fans want to hear, transcribe and use as Instagram captions.

Tiller followed London up by selling out NYC’s Radio City Music Hall on consecutive nights in April. And as for the fans who make it into his shows — they go nuts. Young women lose their minds. They grab at him. They scream. And the men in the crowd recite every lyric like it’s tattooed on their forearms. I used to watch those Michael Jackson concert videos where fans would pass out. Close your eyes and listen to the crowd at a Tiller show and you’d think Justin Bieber just took the stage at the Kids’ Choice Awards. Or, dare I say, Jackson just moonwalked for the first time.

It’s baffling.

But I’d be lying if I told you I wouldn’t have one of his lyrics on my Facebook page after a breakup if I were younger. Tiller is a self-professed student of R&B and someone who understands the types of songs that connect with the social media generation. I’m 30. And married. Maybe Bryson Tiller isn’t singing to my old butt.

Babyface was in his 30s by the time he was singing about relationships, forming my early ideas of what love meant. Phonte, my favorite of the singer/rappers around, is in his 30s, and he’s gone through a divorce and raised children. So when Phonte sings about nights at a bar, and that pull to relive his single life in the midst of a contentious marriage, I know the complexities he’s fighting with. Even Beyonce’s Lemonade, at its heart, is about how hard we’re willing to fight to keep a family together even in the face of infidelity. These are real-life inner turmoils that come from truly examining love and what makes our hearts break and makes us patch ourselves back together. These sentiments don’t exist in the Snapchat filters — yet. And that’s perfectly fine for where Tiller is in his career. Before Beyoncé got to Lemonade, she was bootylicious after all, and sang about wanting a man to pay her bills.

TRAPSOUL is platinum and has has racked up more than 600 million streams worldwide.

This isn’t to say that Tiller can’t or won’t make relatable music for someone like me. In many ways, on many songs, he’s most dynamic when he’s most hip-hop — that is, spouting aspirational bars about his rise to fame from an unknown kid from Kentucky to music’s next big thing. 502 Come Up is Tiller in his comfort zone, shifting from singer to rapper seamlessly between bars and he’s speaking from a place of authenticity. I’m just painting crystal-clear pictures /Brushing up on my lyrics [N-word] / I just wish momma was here to live up under chandeliers with us /I guess all I ever had to do was take this s— a little more serious. I’m fascinated by the idea of a guy who was living check to check with a 1-year-old, making music that suddenly takes off. That journey is worth exploring.

I know it’s music criticism cardinal sin No. 1 to talk about an artist by comparing him to someone else, but it’s impossible to talk about Tiller without mentioning the fact he comes from the same musical tree as Drake and his PartyNextDoor and The Weeknd. Like these OVO guys Tiller uses the backdrop of undulating synths and 808s that are just understated enough to let his voice shine. But where Tiller shows potential to surpass his peers is the strength of his voice. Unlike Weeknd and Drake, Tiller’s voice sounds less synthesized, allowing for a more raw vocal sound to cascade through the speakers. He’s also mastered the tricky skill of finding a home within a beat and exploring every room. Tiller has a seemingly instinctive ability to float over his beats and engrave his harmonies into the listener’s brain. He creates one-man duets, harmonizing over melodies while simultaneously attacking every snare and 808 with a different cadence.

Bryson Tiller performs at SOB's on October 21, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage Bryson Tiller performs at SOB’s on October 21, 2015, in New York City.

Photo by Johnny Nunez/Getty Images

I’m 30. I grew up in an era when there used to be a strict separation between church and state when it came to hip-hop and R&B. Rap was about bravado and aspirations for black men and women. R&B was about love, baring a singer’s soul without shame or pretense. Boyz II Men sang about being on Bended Knee begging for forgiveness outside in the rain in their video. Babyface had a whole song about doing chores for his wife. Vulnerability was at the forefront of traditional R&B. One of the first songs I ever remember listening to as a kid was Lenny Williams’ Cause I Love You — the singer pretty much cries over a woman for five minutes in-between depressingly morbid monologues. I’d ride in the backseat of my mother’s car on the way to school, listening to these songs, thinking that love seemed like a dramatic, life-changing experience.

Then I started listening to rap music.

Except for the occasional I Need Love from an LL Cool J or Passing Me By by the Pharcyde, rap was about masculinity and never showing affection or vulnerability. While Babyface was making ballads like When Can I See You, Snoop Dogg was letting everyone know that b—— ain’t s— but hoes and tricks. Jay Z said in 96 to only love her when your d— hard. And I really could go on. Forever. Rap became about building a wall to prevent the world from seeing true emotions while R&B was for simps. Since I gravitated towards rap, I went through my adolescence not finding music that represented the true emotions of relationships and love.

It was only 18 months ago that Tiller was working at a Louisville, Ky., Papa John’s.

Tiller skeptics say that his fame lives solely on the internet. But what if it does? “The Internet” is where so much of life is lived now. Tiller doesn’t dominate actual real-life conversations like Beyoncé, Drake or even The Weeknd. His music isn’t blasting from cars with the windows down. There’s little if any gossip associated with his name. But try to get a ticket to one of his shows. Or hop on Twitter when his tickets do go on sale. When we post our statuses and Snaps we actively choose to let the world see only what we want it to see. We rarely show the uncomfortable parts of our lives. We can hide our insecurities behind a picture of how many people were at the club we were in when our friend got us to VIP. Tiller provides the soundtrack to youth, to a new kind of social superficiality.

Earlier today I went on Twitter and there was a debate over what a man should do if his girlfriend gives him a kidney and he wants to break up. Last night people were arguing the merits of being married to Ayesha Curry. And on any given day a full-scale Twitter riot will form over whether boyfriends and girlfriends should split the rent. These conversations are hypotheticals that exist in a world for people who aren’t in or have really experienced deep, meaningful relationships. These people sound like they’re in the relationships Tiller sings about. When Tiller sings “give me all of you in exchange for me” on Exchange, he sings the lyrics flippantly as if he doesn’t understand what that really means. And that’s fine for now. Whether his music evolves from trapped soul to free soul — that’s where the true test lies.

David Dennis, Jr. is a writer and adjunct professor of Journalism at Morehouse College. David’s writing has appeared in The Guardian, The Smoking Section, Uproxx, Playboy, The Atlantic, Complex.com and wherever people argue about things on the Internet.