If a passing scroll down the timeline was indicative of anything, I knew 22-year-old Tyler Harris, known as T.Y.E., had been going through it for the past few days. I dialed him in for a interview about his album 32: a debut record as refreshingly honest and piercingly unapologetic as the man who made it. Our conversation proved no different: Harris sounded exasperated at times -- he deals with bipolar and manic depressive disorders, admitting he forgot the call was coming in the midst of an episode -- but continued on with the gratitude and bewilderment of an artist on the cusp of a moment he hasn’t come to grips with just yet.
Harris has been broke, in jail, and almost taken his own life. And he’ll tell you everything before you ask him; this wasn’t always so, but he finds no solace in hiding anything anymore. 32 is his first chance to channel suffering into power for others to break away from their own. He’s unsure how it’ll all fall down; he’s even unsure if he’s as talented as folks make him out to be. But as the prospect of fame looms over a big break, he’s certain the impending legacy of T.Y.E. will either begin the path to freeing him from suffering or further condemn him to an untimely demise.
“At first, I was just trying to keep the image of everything being good,” Harris says. “I was really just tryna be a hood artist from Dallas, and really not growing to my full potential as an artist. I just wanted to do something for the city, but I guess now… it’s bigger. Now, I’m speaking for anybody with a mental illness; if I can relate to those people more than I can relate to the hood - or, even the hood and people that deal with mental illness - then I guess that’s to my advantage.”
Harris came up in Oak Cliff, a historically-white southwestern Dallas neighborhood that became majority Hispanic and Black after decades of post-desegregation white flight. The 32 in “32 Lifestyle” was coined as an alphabetical salute to the Cliff’s YG gang faction that was popular in Harris’s youth (25th letter + 7th letter) and a more literal dedication to the neighborhood’s zip code (75232). After stumbling upon choir class as an easy-enough high school elective -- the potential romantic interests were merely a plus -- Harris netted an unconventional ticket out of the hood: an opera scholarship to Abilene Christian University. The predominantly-white institution met him with a normalized-yet-unique cultural shock, juxtaposing the free default intensive on microaggressions with the overtness of a fraternal social order full of direct descendents from Ku Klux Klan members.
Imagine you’ve been suffering from undiagnosed disorders since your childhood without the tools to receive the help you need, then you’re thrust into a college town where only one of the two movie theaters dared to play Selma. You live with a white professor’s family -- the only one that believed in you -- but his colleagues spare no quip about you wearing a hoodie (ergo, you’re from the hood) and keep trying to force you to say your first name without your native accent. The hood you’re from is bound to feel safer than bearing the draining double consciousness necessary to navigate a campus trying to regurgitate your Black being into Oreo form (a term Tyler begrudgingly returns to several times when describing his college try). That’s the Abilene that drove Tyler to attempt suicide, drop out, and turn T.Y.E into his full-time job.
“I came back home damn near every weekend; after a month of staying on campus, I came home every chance I got,” Harris says. “Even though [the Cliff] was traumatic, people understood me more. Even though the hood’s perspective of me sometimes had an odd ring, that’s still my home. So I’m still always welcome home with open arms regardless if I wanted to kill myself, do opera or rap. My people always had my back; regardless of how much shit they talked, my people always had my back.”
Upon returning to Dallas, T.Y.E became the outlier in a scene he saw as too consumed by chasing the latest wave from regions abroad to carve their own niche into the rap game. Teaming up with videographer DanceDailey, the T.Y.E ethos carries a versatile oeuvre of calculated escapism, rooted in the painful dichotomy of its creator. Harris refers to the character as a coked-up projection of himself: T.Y.E is the invincible, Tyler Durden-esque antihero who gets away with being an asshole since everyone loves him. While he’s not the most positive figure, he’s one that makes everyone feel happy. He’s everything Tyler wishes he could be on a daily basis, hence the paradox of any hero: Tyler, the human being, slips into T.Y.E from his records in times of great peril to cope with his reality. No matter the struggle, they’re inseparable.
“Tyler shows up in the times when I do not need him; Tyler feels all that human shit, the flesh shit,” Harris says. “If I was to die right now, people would want to remember T.Y.E, they wouldn’t wanna remember Tyler. The only people that would look at it as Tyler are the people that’s closest to me and they’d be more hurt than anything, but at the same time… you still have T.Y.E to listen to and that’ll remind you more of the positive times with me, not the negative.”
T.Y.E straddles the line between engaging with the sonic dialogue around it, and drastically subverting that dialogue on a whim. For every crowd-pleaser like “Gwap” and “Kokaine,” depicting conventional trap rap tropes with a joyous T.Y.E shown bathing with white girls and flailing his limbs with the Kool-Aid smile, there’s an “Unusual” and “Suicide” to match, where Tyler emerges to focus on the autobiographical with no detail left to rot. The former shows a child being beaten by his father while Tyler watches on - a memory of himself - while the latter shows Tyler wandering about Dallas in a hospital gown, stopping at two local hospitals where he’s been after episodes and ending up laid next to some headstones in Laurel Land: a funeral home in the Cliff where the Harris family plots reside.
T.Y.E’s process embraces depression to find something beautiful. The most notable signature, save for his glowing operatic range that layers the grisliest details with an inviting warmth, is the drastic shift a record can take at any time, which Harris likens to an anxiety attack on a track. His breakout single “La La Land,” recorded after the suicide attempt that caused him to drop out of ACU, is a six-minute case study on desperation and the will to overcome. We begin with a conflicted Tyler walking by the creek and pondering the end, which is interrupted by a somewhat-optimistic verse detailing the traumas of the Cliff with a note overcoming pain and teaching the hood, before spiraling into thin air and transporting us into a kitchen full of vices and the homies, the song thrashing back down into thunderous 808s as T.Y.E spazzes well beyond his breaking point, layered by devilish background laughter.
When T.Y.E goes into overdrive, Harris describes the closing sequence as a representation of what he used to be surrounded by, but found solace in nonetheless. While he spectated the lifestyle more than he was ever involved in it, he deploys these scenes to showcase how Black men are subject to being painted as thugs with no acknowledgment of their humanity or their circumstances; ironically, the same pervasive energy that tried to force him to bow to whiteness and perform who he’d never want to become. After several hospitalizations and a lifetime of dealing with his disorders, Harris further empathized with his friends and peers by seeing his struggles in them, noting his experiences as testament to the hood’s lack of access to help that’d effectively address mental illness.
“Most of these thug-ass, gangsta-ass niggas are suffering from mental illnesses and they don’t know, and they damn sure are not gonna admit to it,” Harris says. “Or at least not depression; most hood niggas wanna admit to being crazy, but they don’t wanna admit to being sad. Everybody wanna be mad, but don’t nobody wanna be sad because sadness is related to weakness. Don’t nobody wanna seem weak.”
In October 2016, Harris received a call from his manager Archibald, summoning him to Los Angeles for a meeting he couldn’t miss. With no other publicist, investment or notoriety to his name, Harris met up with Jeff Weiss at a bagel shop, thoroughly unconvinced that Weiss’s team was as interested as they were. (L.A. reminded him of “La La Land,” which intrigued him enough to borrow money from his mother to go.) Now, he’s signed to POW Recordings, his music being touted as one of the next big things out of Dallas.
If fame happens to ease his sorrows, granting him the platform he desires, Harris hopes his music will do more to open the dialogue around mental illness, with special attention to kids in communities like the Cliff. He deeply wants to help the hood with a grassroots approach, moving on to focus on career development, improving public education, financial literacy, and addressing issues of poverty with real-world solutions. As Harris continues to fight on the other side of the line, there’s a lingering reassurance that nothing’s guaranteed. But with 32 under his belt and a bright future on the horizon, he’s well-weathered to not only fight for his tomorrow, but encourage others to fight for theirs.
“I make the music out of hope that there’s a better world out there. I don’t make the music to put myself [or anyone else] in a darker mood; I make the music to enlighten, I wanna illuminate people. I don’t want people to just be stuck in the darkness with me, I’m tryna push you to be better. I work out of darkness. I don’t want people to feel like me, I want people to feel better than me.”
Bonus: Read this making of 32 piece on Passion of the Weiss.