Ty Dolla $ign's "Campaign" has some jams, but not much in the way of originality or politics.
For as many amazing concept and/or narrative-driven albums hip hop has produced, there are just as many that boldly proclaim ambitious themes but find it hard to stay on-topic. Fabolousbilled Loso's Way as his take on the film "Carlito's Way," but was just as quick to add that lead single "Throw It In The Bag" didn't fit, but "was so contagious and catchy that we just had to go for it." About half of Lupe Fiasco's The Cool feeds into a story that led one overzealous Genius user to describe Lupe as the "Proust of rap," but even he only found that ten of the album's 19 songs qualified as parts of the narrative. Even the vast middle section of Notorious B.I.G.'s Ready To Die has nothing to do with the fatalism that the rest of the album's built on. Loose adherence to concept doesn't automatically make a bad album, and vice versa, but in the most jumbled of cases, it can be responsible for some awkward moments.
Ty Dolla $ign is a little under a year removed from Free TC, an album whose artwork and preceding press run were both focused on his incarcerated brother, but whose lyrics were split about 80/20 between Ty's love life and said brother. Despite that, it was great. Ty's considerable ambition has always shown up more in his music than his lyrics after all, and given more resources than usual (plus the $50,000 he sprung out-of-pocket for a string section), he created something that was sprawling and grandiose rather than focused and hyper-personal. Campaign, his follow-up Apple Music mixtape, is similarly structured, with its skits and two or three songs devoted to a concept while the rest of it deals primarily with standard mainstream R&B subject matter. It's a "mixtape," so you have to come in with lower standards than you did to his long-in-the-works debut album, but not only does it have fewer standout tracks, it also puts much less effort into addressing a much more universal concept.
In general, Campaign is much more repetitive and middle-of-the-road than its predecessor, with no instrumentals approaching the unorthodox character of Free TC cuts like "Horses In The Stable" or "Guard Down, and most hooks being single phrases repeated four-to-eight times. Boilerplate beats and uninventive song structures are usually par for the course when you're comparing mixtapes to albums, but when we know Ty's capable of the stunning, game-changing Beach House series, Campaign's dull moments sting more than usual. Ty's at his best here when he sounds like himself, absolutely floating over the Cali-as-fuck, electric-guitar led "$" and "Juice" early on, and the breezy "Hello" and "Stealing" in the second half; his worst moments come when sounding like he's trying to recreate the success of guest-heavy, ATL-driven single "Blasé," although Migos collab "??? (Where)" is too fun to deny. Sometimes the concepts are just plain played-out, such as "I fucked that bitch to my song" and the undeniably "Slow Jamz"-styled laundry list of singers on "R&B." Ty's melodic gifts and undeniable charisma are still visible every few seconds, but Campaign's stiffness makes it sound like it was recorded in a makeshift tour bus studio with emailed beats and guest verses. It just doesn't feel as alive as Free TC.
And then there's the "concept." Campaign was released three days before the first Presidential debate, and despite some decent insight on its handful of skits, the overall product offers very little more than a "Rock The Vote"-style message-- which is still important, but like, tweet about it or something. To be fair, Ty has never mentioned that there's any overarching theme to this thing, like he did with Free TC months before its release. Nevertheless, this politicking's close proximity to Ty's sexed-up songwriting creates more than a few awkward transitions, starting right from the beginning, where an impassioned skit about politicians' denial about the true root of gang violence is followed seconds later by Ty singing about "fucking your friends" and "going fucking retarded." This is not meant to demean Ty's subject matter or deny that he's got important opinions about the election (props for calling out both Trump and Clinton's friends in the KKK), but pillow talk and political discussions usually don't make a great combo, especially if there's no attempt to connect the two. Throughout his career, Ty's been incredible at elevating gutter anthems into sublime hymns, but tying songs about stealing bitches hearts to a presidential election is too steep a task, even for him. It may have been wise to not attempt much conversation between the two, but it leaves us with an awkward pairing.
As was the case on Free TC, Campaign's emotional centerpiece comes courtesy of a collaboration between Ty and TC. "No Justice" references the "no justice, no peace" rallying cry of Black Lives Matter, and anchored by his brother's sterling hook, Ty manages to stay on-topic long enough to drop a verse about cops harassing his mother, grandma, and sister. It's one of the most affecting moments of his career (this side of Kanye's "Only One"), and it would have been nice to see a little more time devoted to important issues like police brutality on a project so couched in political signifiers. "Breaking Bad" character Mike Ehrmentraut once had a great monologue about never taking "half measures," meaning that you should never commit to something without seeing it all of the way through, and Campaign is a definite half measure. Either stick to apolitical sex jams (which is absolutely fine by me), or devote more than 1/12th of a vaguely politically-themed mixtape to the country's actual issues.