Something about the current configuration of the major label industry has proven particularly unfair for R&B auteurs. The-Dream has only managed to sputter out inconsistent EPs since his critically adored, commercially underperforming Love (Hate, Vs. Money, and King) trilogy. A similar outcome for Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange has seemingly forced its creator into hermitage. Then there’s Jeremih, something of the poster child for this subset of would-be stars, whose Late Nights tape promised a revamped career, but has only been followed up by years of album delays. Less artsy, more commercially tried-and-true capital-S singers Chris Brown and Trey Songz have seen their careers more or less uninterrupted by this pattern, and more alternative-skewing artists such as Miguel and The Weeknd (the latter of whom totally upended that identity with his most recent string of hits) have managed to find strong core audiences. But R&B's artsy middle class-- singers/producers who want to make sprawling, baroque compositions-- have largely been left out to dry. 

Ty Dolla $ign's biggest hit to date is still "Paranoid," a 2013 track that first appeared on a mixtape that wasn't his. It took over three months for his label to replace original guest Joe Moses with B.o.B and repurpose it as a shiny new single and package it, along with an additional remix, onto an EP (nowadays the go-to "oh shit we promised you an album but we think it would flop right now" format). Since then, he's been shamelessly pawned out to struggling Atlantic artists (Stalley, Victoria Monet, Diggy Simmons) for personality-starved features, and like the artists mentioned above, endured pushback after pushback on his passion project, Free TC.

"Stand For," released as the album's lead single last November, ended up being a toe dipped into the waters of commercial viability by Atlantic, as it failed to connect on the radio and isn't included on the album that arrived a year later. It's still a stronger track than most on the frankenstein version of Free TC we've received, and its uplifting, bold sound and message fit the album's tone much more than, say, "Actress." Instead, the forward-thinking production and Ty's solid control of songwriting on "Stand For" have been shooed out in favor of familiar faces and sounds. What's truly remarkable, and a lasting testament to Ty's abilities, is that the hodgepodge of a final product isn't total garbage. In fact, it's one of the strongest albums of the year.

Ty's breakout mixtape, Beach Hou$e, only featured guests on five of its 13 tracks, and all of them hailed from his home state. By contrast, the 20-track Free TC only contains two Dolla $ign solo cuts, and it features New Yorkers, Norwegians, Virginians, and those from everywhere in between. Ty used to work as an insular unit with his D.R.U.G.S. production team; now he's got R&B legends, TDE mainstays and ATL all-stars in the credits. His debut was always going to be a big jump from his beginnings, but this is a Khaled or Diddy-level tracklist. By nature, Free TC is very diverse, containing the cinematic sweep of recent L.A. rap opuses, the unmistakable DJ Mustard bounce, '90s slow jam updates, and acoustic guitar-led adult contempo within its first four tracks. The reason it works is that Ty has more depth to his personality than any other horny crooner around these days, and uses the songs as windows into different facets of his personality. 

"Straight Up" functions as the mission statement. Ty lays it all on the table with "Feelings, don't catch those," and everything that follows is directed at women who've chosen to accept that. Without it, "Horses In The Stable" would seem disrespectful ("You just another girl and this just another night"), but since Ty's already given us the "this relationship is purely sexual" disclaimer, it makes almost perfect sense. "Credit" is sung to the woman who didn't take his word for it, and Ty finds himself citing evidence that, despite his slutty ways, he's treated her with respect. "I never smoked weed in your mama house," he croons, also noting that he never flirted with her homegirls and promising "to go to the grave with all [her] secrets." Sex is the end-all-be-all of Ty's romantic relationships, and he treats it as such, making road head sound like a holy sacrament on "Wherever." Amid all of the inconsistent features and production choices on Free TC, Ty's charismatic honesty stays afloat. 

Some experiments fall flat, most notably the tropical house detour "Bring It Out Of Me" and ensuing track "Actress," which seems to have been retained for its R. Kelly guest spot rather than its gratingly repetitive hook. However, those represent the rare moments when Ty isn't able to cater to the album's quirks. For instance, the Tracy Chapman steez he and Babyface adopt on "Solid" and the cowboy referencing, country-ish "Horses In The Stable" are both total out-of-character moments, but he delivers each with just enough of a wink to make for a pair of truly charming cuts. It's not just fun and games though-- Ty elevates his game on "Straight Up" and "Finale" by hitting more classic-sounding R&B vocal runs than we've heard from him before, and on "Guard Down," he skillfully tackles the weirdest beat of Hit-Boy's career (which sounds like an Aphex Twin remix of JJ Fad's "Supersonic"). Thankfully, the Ty we know and love hasn't been totally erased, as he still dominates Mustard beats with ease, bros out with Wiz Khalifa, skillfully navigates hip Metro Boomin and DJ Spinz compositions, and continues being hip hop's most devout violin advocate since Kanye West's Miri Ben-Ari phase on College Dropout (even when it costs him $50,000 out-of-pocket).

It's a real pity that Free TC doesn't feel 100% like a Ty Dolla $ign album, and the even larger tragedy is that much of the album doesn't even focus on his still-imprisoned brother (as "Stand For" did). The interludes featuring TC are a saving grace, as is his glorious singing on "Miracle," but the album could have functioned as a much better tribute to him, perhaps at the expense of its marketability. Although it's a little unfair to pit these two artists against each other, I can't help but think of Fetty Wap's debut album when listening to Ty's. It had no features outside of his Jersey comrades Monty and M80, and despite its major label release, seems to have been almost totally overseen by Fetty and his team (and was released within a month of being announced). Ty's, on the other hand, sags due to the standard move of stuffing features into the albums of artists with underperforming singles. Considering his talent, longevity, and proven songwriting chops, Ty should have been allowed the same freedom as Fetty, but he never had the hits (or incredibly lucky timing) to back it up. At this stage in the game, Ty's best hope for total autonomy is a hugely successful mixtape run like Future's, but who knows if that's even possible, given how intricate his best work is. Somebody needs to start giving these modern R&B masters the space, support, and resources they deserve, without requiring them to bend over backwards to fit cookie-cutter format requirements. Until that happens, Ty will continue to make albums on other peoples' terms that still blow the competition out of the water against all odds. 

Ty Dolla $ign was the focus of HNHH's latest digital cover story, "I Am My Brother's Keeper." Check it out here