Review: Tiyé Pulley ’19 finds “The Way Out”

Tiyé Pulley ’19 introduced his debut EP, “The Way Out,” by reading a deeply personal account of the recording process of the project. His note tells the story of the trials and turmoil that birthed this EP. Almost the entirety of the project was written in one week in the midst of mental breakdown and recorded in a single session. “The Way Out” premiered last Friday to a room of whoops and loud applause.

Pulley has been a strong presence in the recently revived hip hop scene at Swarthmore since his arrival last year. He parlayed his regular attendance at the WSRN show “Freestyle Friday’s,” performances at open mics, and variously sponsored Olde Club shows into a freeform jazz hip hop band last spring. That band, GOODGOODNOTBAD, went on to achieve considerable Battle of the Bands success, winning Pulley the opportunity to open for Tory Lanez at Worthstock 2016. Fresh off of that experience, Pulley returned home over the summer, where he recorded “The Way Out”.

In order to examine this project critically, it is important to establish a basis of comparison. Comparing Pulley’s EP to major label hip hop releases would provide an unfair and largely unhelpful metric for consideration. Fortunately, in this era of widespread access to the internet and mainstream popularity of hip hop, there ’is a wide variety of material to establish a more helpful basis of comparison. Pulley is not unique as a rapper in college, “college rap” is actually a reasonably well-established genre. Sadly, rap music associated with college or made by current students generally has an overwhelmingly negative reputation. Of course, there are exceptions. Kanye West’s debut album “College Dropout” contains many collegiate references and is both critically and popularly beloved. Additionally, many successful rappers, like 2 Chainz and J. Cole, hold college degrees. However, college rap as a genre, represented by figures such as Hoodie Allen, Asher Roth, and Sammy Adams, has often been both critically panned and widely considered corny.

Evaluated in terms of college rap, Pulley’s album is a clear standout. He successfully avoids college rap clichés and displays a far more intricate and adept flow than is characteristic of the genre. Pulley’s laid-back production and dense verses differ significantly from the pop-oriented party anthems that constitute the majority of well-known college rap. This represents both a breath of fresh air and a limitation on the basis of comparison. To resolve this limitation, Pulley’s medium of publication offers another metric for judgement: SoundCloud rappers.

SoundCloud rappers have nearly as poor of a reputation as college rappers. Although many of the best regarded and most upwardly mobile underground rappers publish their music through SoundCloud, the openness of the platform means that it is also hugely populated by much worse music. Ultimately, this has led to a reputation for SoundCloud rap characterized by rough closet studio singles.

Again, on this metric, Pulley stands out. The production on “The Way Out,” for the most part, shuns the modern trend toward EDM influence and draws from classic hip hop production, featuring samples, keys, strings, and drum beats. This is by no means rare for SoundCloud and neither is Pulley’s lyricism. What is remarkable, however, is the quality with which this project was executed.

All instrumentals in the “The Way Out” were made by a single producer, bergs~, which helped create a cohesive album while managing to avoid a sense of homogeneity. Pulley has impressive range in terms of flow, neatly sidestepping a pitfall for many amateur rappers. He displays his adeptness at both dense, lyrically intricate flows and simpler triplet flows. MF Doom is a clear influence, especially visible in the beginning of “diamond in the ruff interlude.” Pulley also bears rhythmic resemblance to OutKast at times, but his closest colleagues are clearly Chicago rapper Vic Mensa and Brooklyn trio Flatbush Zombies. The only feature on the project, BooG in “Falling,” is similarly well executed, although BooG does bear a remarkable similarity to Jay Electronica.

The cohesiveness of “The Way Out” extends beyond the production. The EP is lyrically and thematically consistent. Pulley is consistently able to bring his verses to life through vocal inflections and skilled impassioned delivery. Overall, this EP stands as an impressive and admirable demonstration of Pulley’s well honed skill.

“The Way Out” is not without flaws, however. The entire project is mixed more quietly than standard and the seven track EP lasts just over 16 minutes. While the latter is not necessarily a bad quality, it is likely the product of a noticeable lack of hooks and in some instances means that the individual songs do not have the time to develop much of an individual character, only allowing brief glimpses into the aural concept Pulley was trying to curate. Additionally, there are a few visible signs of Pulley’s relative youth and inexperience. While his bars, in many instances, snap perfectly to the beat, there are times when he holds a syllable or pause a half-second to long and it shows. Regardless of these relatively minor flaws, “The Way Out” is an impressive debut and signals good things to come from Pulley.

Pulley and BooG will both be performing at the WSRN Hip Hop Showcase on Friday September 30th, as well as the Student Band Showcase on Saturday October 1st, both in Olde Club as part of the Kitao Fall Arts Festival.

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