Any artist that enjoys strong commercial success in their teens will, to a degree, grow up in public, and this is especially true for Tyler, the Creator. As the de-facto leader of the anarchic rap collective turned media empire Odd Future, he’s been baiting, and duly receiving worldwide media attention for the best part of a decade, both positively for his growing sophistication as a rapper and producer, and negatively for, well, just about everything. Odd Future were truly an exercise in controversy, and while their punk-inspired, stage-diving live shows may have had them banned from New Zealand, it was the dark nihilism of their lyrics, often homophobic, misogynistic and violent, that really cemented their notoriety.
The constant hopping between goofy party songs and confessional introspection is one of the key features of Tyler’s music, and as a result it’s hard to know what lyrics of his, if any, to take seriously. In response to allegations of homophobia, he’s keen to point out that Odd Future DJ Syd Tha Kyd is a lesbian, while fellow collaborator Frank Ocean is the most prominent (openly) LGBT artist in the hip-hop/ R&B sphere. More than that though, paying any attention to the lyrics of the delightfully titled Scum Fuck Flower Boy adds layers of irony to any previous use of the word “faggot”. Although ‘I Ain’t Got Time’ may start off as a typically abrasive Tyler banger in the mould of ‘Domo 23’, the lyric “Next line will have ’em like “Woah”/ I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004” has brought much attention to previous declarations of homosexual feelings that were dismissed as jokes. Meanwhile, ‘Garden Shed’ seems to serve as a metaphor for being in the closet. Whether an actual attempt to come out or simply more clowning, it’s Tyler at rapid-fire best.
The rest of the album is considerably more relaxed than his previous work, trading harsh beats for a smoother, more soul-inflected production. The crawling build-up of the aforementioned owes more than a nod to Frank Ocean, although it’s Estelle who croons the song’s chorus. Ocean also shows up on ‘Where This Flower Blooms’, a nostalgic look at Tyler’s Starbucks-employee past (“Counting sheep on Sadie Hannah’s floor… 80 dollar profit from the coffee I poured”), and on single ‘911/ Mr Lonely’, a heartbreaking confession of isolation that Tyler’s previous lyrics had only hinted at. It’s part of a more overtly personal theme on the record, from the ennui of ‘Boredom’, or the painful regret of ‘November’, while the lovelorn ‘See You Again’ focuses on his search for the perfect partner (‘’20/20 vision/ Cupid hit me, hit me with precision’’). The second half of the album is particularly personal and better for it, giving the album a focus and precision that his overly-long previous albums have lacked. One ‘throwback’ to his earlier material rests on the flipside of the ‘911/ Mr Lonely’ single, ‘Who Dat Boy.’ Over a typically bombastic beat, he drops n-bombs aplenty while bragging about his GOLF fashion line and alluding to last year’s most toxic meme, and it’s absolutely thrilling.
If this is the birth of a new, subtler, more mature Tyler, he deserves credit: although his sexuality may now take the headlines, it’s his apparent newfound ability to express himself without the need for childish bravado that’s the truly surprising thing, and it’s resulted in his best album to date. The album is weaker for the lack of more ‘Tamale’ style rave-ups all the same though, and for all we know, the new confessional, heart on sleeve Tyler may be an elaborate joke. If his next album finds him drying his tears and going back to clowning, I won’t be complaining either. Caolán Coleman