“Who I was last year, or any year before that, would say I do think people were too hard on me,” Tiller tells me over a Google Hangout. “But who I am now understands why they were.” He’s phoned in from a studio in Los Angeles bathed in red lighting, which, thanks to TLC, is about as R&B as you can get. Wearing a shirt from the new merch commemorating the five-year anniversary of TRAPSOUL, the plain-spoken album that took him from being a Papa John’s employee in Louisville to an overnight R&B sensation, the singer seems nervous but eager to talk about the music he’s created in purgatory.
TRAPSOUL, his claim to fame, wasn’t just the title of his debut, but a niche he was carving out for himself. The marriage of R&B and rap wasn’t new, but the way Tiller did it was. He approached his music with the hustle of a rapper, uploading tracks to SoundCloud and finding free beats where he could. But the milestone isn’t the only reason why his return feels particularly timely.
In recent months, the death of Breonna Taylor and the failure to convict her killers, has thrust Louisville, his hometown, into the center of the national conversation, prompting the singer to put up billboards across the city in her honor. And as far as COVID-19 is concerned, Tiller, a guy who rapped about wanting to be able to shop in Target in peace, could practically have written the manual on social distancing. If the old adage says eyes are the window to someone’s soul, it’s no coincidence that Tiller’s are usually hidden under a dad cap.
The fight for Black lives has also meant calling upon the music industry to value Black artists as more than as a commodity. On True to Self’s “Before You Judge,” Tiller raps a fiery verse detailing his struggles with his former management team: “Just got a new manager, my last one was fucking up my vision / Can’t believe this nigga still tryna get a percentage / I gave you back your investment, get out your feelings.” As for the legal proceedings, Tiller says he’s “completely done with that,” but explains that the situation was one of the inspirations behind Anniversary.
“I got the idea for this album earlier this year when I was sitting in a 12-hour deposition,” he says, recalling that the process involved revisiting emails dating as far back as 2014. Seeing the evidence of his earliest musical footprints was a reminder of how far he’d come. “I was like, Wow, it’s been that long since ‘Don’t.‘ I called my manager [Neil Dominique] like, ‘Yo, I want to do an album and I want to call it Anniversary as a gift and a thank you to my fans.'”
Just like on a traditional anniversary, Tiller’s third studio album sees the artist wooing his listener all over again. The album is almost like a scavenger hunt, scattering Tiller’s trademarks for listeners to uncover throughout its 10 tracks. “Inhale,” Anniversary’s lead single, follows the sample-heavy formula that made TRAPSOUL’s hit single “Exchange” popular, resuscitating Mary J. Blige and SWV’s singles from the Waiting to Exhale soundtrack. As overused as R&B samples can be, “Inhale”‘ stands out because the Dpat-produced mix features a skit from Brent Faiyaz. In a genre that so often prioritizes female voices, it’s the rare R&B track that centers two male artists, and friends, at the top of their game.
The other voice we hear on Anniversary is one that sees Tiller fulfilling one of the pipe-dreams he sang about his debut: a feature with Drake. “Outta Time” is a full circle moment from 2015’s “Ten Nine Fourteen,” which rejoices at the mere fact that the Kentucky singer was able to get a co-sign from the Toronto rapper. Now, the two are friendly enough that a text is all it takes to conjure up a collaboration.
In a year as chaotic as 2020, nothing feels better than a dose of nostalgia, which is why, when it came time to begin work on Anniversary, Tiller returned to the files on his harddrive that started it all.
“There’s a lot of songs on this project that were supposed to be on TRAPSOUL,” he says. Lackluster reactions to the songs that ended up on his debut caused Tiller to second-guess ideas that weren’t yet fully formed. “I gave up on a lot of those ideas back then, and now I’m like, Why did I ever do that? I’ll listen to an older beat and I’m like, How the hell does this still beat still go so hard in 2020? This is timeless. It made me want to finish what I started.”
Although he plans on dishing which songs were intended for TRAPSOUL one day, for now, he’s keeping that close to the chest. But his choice of phrasing could mean that “Timeless,” a rap-laden cut from Anniversary, might be one. Relationships are the cornerstone of Tiller’s catalogue, but “Timeless” feels like the listener is eavesdropping on an intimate conversation he’s having with God. “Normally I’m closed off, but just for this specific song I might try to let them in,” he raps.
According to Tiller, the death of his grandmother, who raised Tiller after his mother died when he was just four years old, awakened his faith. “Her passing made me change the way I viewed myself and the way I viewed everything I’ve done in the past,” he says. “If my grandma’s up there with Him personally, asking Him to heal me, I have to put in the physical leg work toward reaching that goal.”
“Keep Doing What You’re Doing” opens with birthday wishes from his grandmother, who he affectionately calls “Mamaw.” “That’s the last clip I have of her saying anything,” he says, recalling their last few messages to each other. “After she passed, the first thing I noticed was that I didn’t respond to enough text messages and I wasn’t as enthusiastic when I responded. I was holding onto some things from my childhood that I never got past. That’s one of my biggest regrets.” What follows is an emotional tribute to the woman who raised him, grounded in the sobering reality that by the time he was ready to take his grandmother’s advice, she wasn’t there to see it. “I wish I believed when you told me you believed in me,” he sings.
The day after her death, he reread that old text message and headed to the studio. “I started crying when I saw it, because I really started to think about that. Everything I did to get me here, there was somebody who didn’t believe in it. Some people told me ‘Don’t’ was my only good song.” After recording the first part of “KDWYD”, he focused on pouring his reflections on the remainder of the track. According to him, he cried “about a thousand times” when he finished penning the song in Los Angeles.
Last week, he released a video for “Right My Wrongs,” finally giving TRAPSOUL’s heartfelt closer a long overdue visual. Like his backdated Instagram, it’s a time capsule of the moments that solidified his stardom, from his first shows to sold out arenas. Revisiting Tiller’s debut in an era where artists like H.E.R., Lucky Daye, and Victoria Monét rely largely on live instrumentation makes the 808-heavy, “type beat” production of TRAPSOUL feel like an artifact of SoundCloud’s peak—but that’s also its allure. One listen is enough to transport you back to the year when Barack Obama was still president and our biggest concern seemed to be Drake’s really bad dance moves. Tiller’s dysfunction was a mirror to your own and his potential was enough to inspire yours too.
There is no Anniversary without TRAPSOUL, and contemporary R&B’s scene wouldn’t exist as it does without Tiller’s success. When I ask if he sees himself as playing a role in R&B’s resurgence, he hesitates a bit.
“Any time before my grandmother’s passing, I probably would’ve been disagreeing with you,” he says. “I was scared to believe. Righting my wrongs is me saying I’m going to continue to believe in myself instead of listening to the critics. I’m going to keep doing what I’m doing.”
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.