Ty Dolla $ign: Back to the Beach
Appearances can be deceiving – Tyrone William Griffin Jr. of all people is aware of that. With blue eyes so striking they’ve got a subcategory when you search his name on Google Images, a load of tattoos, and hair in dreads, the 32-year-old artist best known as Ty Dolla $ign is often confused as being a rapper.
And while he does occasionally dabble in rap, in line with the current vogue for melodic delivery in hip-hop, he’s a little fed up with being mislabelled. “People think all niggas with dreads look the same,” he tells me. “People only call me a rapper because of how I look.” The truth is that Ty Dolla $ign is multi-faceted. The Californian singer, producer, and multi-instrumentalist grew-up in a musical household (his father was in funk band Lakeside), and as a child he met the likes of Earth, Wind & Fire, the Isley Brothers and, briefly, Tupac Shakur – he’s as likely to reference Prince as 90s hip-hop legends in any given interview. He’s trying to play bass and guitar at his gigs as much as possible these days, and he enlisted a 19-piece string orchestra for the recording of his debut album Free TC.
This ambitious approach has seen Ty Dolla $ign’s name grow exponentially over the past few years. He’s never far from sight due to his wide-ranging array of guest features – you likely know his distinctly smooth voice from Kanye’s Fade and Real Friends, or from collaborations with Wiz Khalifa, Bebe Rexha, Vince Staples, Jason Derulo, Meek Mill, Charli XCX and Tinashe or even Norwegian producer Cashmere Cat. “People that would never have paid attention to me until I hopped onto someone else’s song? Now I have their attention,” Ty says. “Maybe people from my label say ‘that’s too many features’, but actually it’s working out perfect because I might not have been on this platform otherwise. So I think my plan is working.”
Ty Dolla $ign is about to release his second studio album, Beach House 3. 2014’s Beach House EP spawned two of Ty’s biggest, most salacious hits: Paranoid and Or Nah. The former is a club banger that finds him worrying about two girls he’s seeing at the same time conspiring against him, while in the latter he essentially quizzes a woman over just how much of a freak she’s willing to be in bed. “God willing,” he’s hoping Beach House 3 will have similar, if not greater success.
“There’s a lot of bangers coming from the chest, and there’s a lot more singing instead of the rappy shit,” he says of BH3. “There’s probably only one or two ‘people-may-confuse-me-for-a-rapper’ songs.” For all his concerns about this rapper confusion, Ty is perhaps best known for his typically braggadocio, quasi-RnB tracks with often brazenly sexual lyrics, crooning about ladies with “pussy like quicksand”, persuading conquests into threesomes, and even detailing the perks of being a sugar daddy.
While some of his lyrics might make you feel in need of a cold shower, Ty Dolla $ign’s public persona is still that of an affable guy brimming with laughter. Talking to me on the phone from Long Beach he’s entirely warm and even whimsical down the line. (At one point he interrupts himself to exclaim: “Whoa a big-ass butterfly just flew by me! I must be lucky.”) He is also known to be besotted with his young daughter – he even did guest vocals on a track with one of her favourite pop groups, Fifth Harmony.
There is, arguably, a conflict between fatherhood and making the sleazy, sexy kind of music that he does. It’s something Ty tells me he’s working on. “Say I’m just freestyling and I say some way out shit, lately I might go back over it, because I have [my daughter] in mind and I don’t want to say something that might be embarrassing to her.”
From the BH3 tracks released so far, it’s hard to say how much he’s really toned it down. Regardless, there’s plenty to be excited about. Dawsin’s Breek with Jeremih boasts choppy, Migos-esque delivery, laced with a billowing humidity courtesy of Mike WiLL Made-It. Meanwhile the gorgeous, fleeting Message in a Bottle is all woozy, silken RnB ruminations on a too-drunk hook-up, Damian Marley-featuring So Am I swirls with Skrillex’s dancehall siren call, and DJ Mustard-produced Love U Better with Lil Wayne and The-Dream is a racy, romantic party tune.
As the variety of these tracks might suggest, a criticism Ty faced with Free TC was that he tried to do too much – 16 tracks underpinned with careening strings, a myriad of features and even a choir. But, again, that visionary ambition is arguably one of his greatest artistic strengths. “Free TC was on some other shit,” he says with a laugh. “There’ll definitely come a Free TC 2 – damn, I just gave away too much.”
"I guess Campaign didn't really work because Trump won. Maybe I'm not that good at politics yet!"
As with much of his work, Free TC largely dealt with Ty’s romantic affairs, but it also confronted the shortcomings of the US prison system. The title pays tribute to his younger brother TC. “He’s locked up for something that he didn’t do,” Ty said during a radio interview at the time, “and what I’m trying to do is just raise awareness for the whole mass incarceration thing going on in our country.” Last year, in the lead-up to the election, he released Campaign which found him encouraging people to vote Hillary. “She gotta fix these jail policies and everything […] Fuck Trump. If all votes count, I’m voting for Hillary. Fuck it,” longtime collaborator YG proclaimed at the end of the track Hello.
Understandably, Ty is somewhat jaded with politics now: “There’s not really anything political on Beach House 3 – I guess Campaign didn’t really work because Trump won. Maybe I’m not that good at politics yet,” he says with a laugh. “Maybe I gotta get back to the books… I thought everyone was speaking out against him, but then he still won. It shows you what’s really going on, you know? Everybody’s so ‘followers this, followers that’, on Instagram but that shit don’t mean nothing.”
Beach House 3 might not get political, but it’s not to say Ty won’t be again sometime in the future; and, besides, the necessity of solid party tunes and slow jams shouldn’t be undermined. Ambitious, sensual, and warmly self-assured, Ty Dolla $ign is more than a mere purveyor of sleaze; more than that guest artist with a lot of hooks who looks like he might be a rapper. Appearances can be deceiving, but it certainly looks like this might be the album which makes the wider world recognise Ty Dolla $ign for the multi-faceted artist that he is.
Photography: Jan-Micheal Stasiuk
Photographer’s Assistant: Danny MacMillan
Beach House 3 is out 27 October via Atlantic