Overnight success rarely happens overnight. But in the case of 20-year-old Tyus Strickland, that's pretty much exactly how it went down. He went to sleep one night, woke up, and had his music career jump-started in a way he never anticipated—or really wanted.
Two years ago, the Portland-raised R&B singer's self-produced tracks began circulating online, through no concentrated push of his own. Someone had taken his songs, pitched the vocals down and tried to pass them off as unreleased material from Drake protégé PartyNextDoor. It fooled the right people—namely, social-media maven Karen Civil, who shared the "leaks" with her 400,000 Twitter followers. Fans quickly figured out the ruse, leading them back to Strickland's originals and exploding his SoundCloud plays. The problem, of course, is the internet commentariat assumed he orchestrated the whole stunt himself.
"It was a gift and a curse," Strickland says. "The weird part about it was that first initial week. People were bashing me like a motherfucker. I was like, 'What should I do? Should I keep it going?'"
At this point, though, whatever ill effects the "curse" part may have had on his future have been quarantined to message-board archives and the grumblings of a few lingering haters with Tumblr accounts. Once the controversy blew over, Strickland had gained thousands of legitimate new fans. He attracted the attention of a Kentucky-based marketing firm, which led, in June, to a deal with Warner Bros. Like Aminé, TYuS—as he prefers to stylize it—circumvented the barriers that still exist in Portland for singers and rappers with pop aspirations, harnessing the power of virality to reach a national audience before many in his hometown knew his name.
But again, overnight success never actually happens overnight, even when it literally happens overnight. In truth, Strickland's been preparing for this moment since he was a child, when he'd sing Usher songs to impress his mother. From the age of 13, he was producing his own beats; by 16, he'd released two mixtapes under his rap name, TY the Rebel. But even for an exceedingly confident teenager, "R&B star" hardly seemed like a viable career option. So a few years ago, Strickland went to California to work on a pot farm run by some family members, with the promise of a big payday that never materialized.
"I got sold a dream that I was going to be helping and stuff," he says, "and it never happened."
Strickland says the experience helped him refocus. Moving back to Portland, he dropped the TY the Rebel moniker and divested from anyone who might distract him from his creative goals. By the time of the PartyNextDoor incident, his music had matured to where it could easily pass for the work of an artist with a lot of industry muscle behind him.
And now that he's got those resources working for him for real, Strickland is able to show what he can really do. On Never Forget, his debut EP for Warner Bros., Strickland places himself somewhere between Bryson Tiller's "trap soul" and the more vintage seductions of Jodeci. While his voice is graceful and airy, it's the moody, headphone-worthy production he's especially proud of. He made several of the beats himself, and it's not hard to imagine them alongside Jeremih and the Weeknd on mainstream radio.
Some kids his age might be overwhelmed by the very idea of being included in such company, but Strickland insists he's not tripping on any of it. Right now, his main concern is putting on for his city. He's using his cachet to create a company, StrickRose, to develop new artists from the Pacific Northwest. Portland might not be the place you'd expect the future of R&B to take root. But as Strickland is already proving, it doesn't have to stay that way.
"I'm trying to build a new Portland," he says. "I'm never trying to go somewhere else or rep somewhere else. I'm bringing it back to the city, and we can build from there."
SEE IT: TYuS plays Hawthorne Theatre, 1507 SE César E. Chávez Blvd., with Cassow, Jonny Cool and A-Russ, on Wednesday, Dec. 14. 8 pm. $13 advance, $15 day of show. All ages.