Tyler, The Creator has made a career for himself in entertainment based on a psychological game of chicken he plays endlessly with his viewing public. Our fascination with the kid and his Odd Future cohorts began with 2008’s The Odd Future Tape, a half-baked serving of scattershot verses that failed to determine distinct personalities between members, but succeeded in introducing America to the heinous juvenile antics of a skateboard-loving, Supreme cloth-donning crew of Los Angeles rap misfits.
Since that fateful release, the rap internet has sorted out its archetypes from the 12 (or so) member OF pack: there’s the goofball hanger-on (Jasper Dolphin); the mischievous misanthrope (Hodgy Beats); the horny pothead (Left Brain); the burgeoning artiste (Frank Ocean); and the troubled boy genius (Earl Sweatshirt); among others. Team OF exists and operates under a dome of obscene benevolence as dictated by Tyler, whose job since his 2009 debut, Bastard, has been to bait a hungry blogosphere with a stream of hateful tweets, provocative music videos, and cartoonishly nihilist rap lyrics. This all culminated in 2011’s Goblin, an uneven and fairly unsatisfying sophomore effort that left this critic wondering what all the fuss was about in the first place.
Currently, Tyler has his hand in a lot of pots — touring with the crew, the Loiter Squad show on Adult Swim, OF-themed pop-up stores — but simultaneous to all of those he’s kept our attention by saying and doing off-the-wall shit thats ensures a forever-held interest by at least two parties: adoring fans who might believe Tyler is Millennial ontology incarnate, and staunch critics who hold him responsible for undoing 20 years’ worth of liberal progressivism. The game Tyler currently plays with this audience is one of zero sum: he acts, people react, rewind, and repeat. In this perpetual cycle of finger-pointing the only way for the 22-year-old rapper/producer/actor/director to rise above the din and allow his artistry to speak for itself, is to stop gazing so much at our reaction and start speaking to the man in the mirror.
Among the Tyler-fascinated there’s also a third party: the pop culture literati who collate all the swears, crunch the data, and churn out the reviews and thought pieces. The relative drought of online hand-wringing since Odd Future’s initial surge into the public conscious is a sign this group has started to lose interest. For those who’ve resisted passing judgement on Tyler in hopes of unearthing the complex pathos that undoubtedly lies beneath the bluster, the greatest gift would be for Tyler to step through his own looking glass. On his third full-length album, Wolf, he finally does — albeit partially.
The biggest issue with Tyler’s previous solo work has been how the seemingly frivolous anathema of his lyrics distorts our understanding of an underlying emotional desolation. If Tyler would just let us love him, maybe fewer of us would be offended, because after all there’s nothing we like better than watching a complex personality suffer emotional turmoil and nothing we dislike more than a blabbering homophobe. My crack team of one kept an unofficial scorecard of “offensive moments” during my review of Wolf, and through follow-up spins of Bastard and Goblin, and the very early data suggests this latest album is the “least offensive” which is, clearly, irrefutable proof that Tyler has matured.
But that’s not to say the record was strained through some sort of morality sieve before being released to the world. Tyler has always done an efficient job at chasing away would-be sympathizers and indeed the first thing we’re told on album intro “Wolf” is to “Fuck off.” So there’s that. There’s also obnoxious filler like “Trashwang” which, to be fair, is just a send-up of violent, shitty trap rap, but a violent and (again) shitty one at that. And then there are the joints only meant to get teenagers hyped and critics gnashing their teeth, “Domo23” and “Parking Lot”. But for every standard OF expectorant, there’s a song that finds Tyler dealing with his troubles head-on, or, at the very least, not using profanity or the threat of extreme violence as a defense mechanism. Even the school shooting narrative “Pigs” — replete with dated trenchcoat mafia references and pleading children’s voices — is the centerpiece to an ongoing storyline throughout Wolf about three characters presumably meant to compose the varying degrees of Tyler’s psyche.
Evidence of a young man with greater insight also appears on “Awkward”, the first love song we’ve heard from Tyler that doesn’t include a rape and murder; assuming you can see past the pitched-down vocals and vaguely foreboding production, it’s a saccharine portrait of two kids sharing their first kiss. “Lone” is Tyler recounting the events surrounding his grandmother’s passing, a complete dispensation of his absurdist lyrical tendencies in favor of simple, naked emotive rap. The kid making these songs is the same one who used to post anonymous skateboarding videos on YouTube and clips of he and his crew tormenting passers-by on Ventura Boulevard. Of course those types of stunts are impossible now given Tyler’s fame, which helps explain “Slater”, a nostalgic, in-the-wind glance back at a simpler youth featuring a playful, taunting Frank Ocean.
The type of isolation bred by fame might also explain the significant jump in the quality of production between Goblin and Wolf. Tyler has clearly been spending more time in the studio, refining the free-form, harried electronics that scribbled all over his past work into fuller-sounding, well-conceived compositions. Tyler’s admitted production idol, Pharrell, appears on “IFHY” where percussion explodes against Neptunes-inspired synth. “Jamba” is a spare, banging cut, a model for how the empty space between bass and rhythm can serve as the most vital component to a beat. The crack dealer’s lament, “48”, is Wolf’s most impressive track: a low end-heavy affair that rolls with mourning horns and keyboard; Tyler gives the hustler’s testimonial and a disembodied Nas vocal sample provides a first-hand account of the crack epidemic. “48” — along with oddities like the jazz interlude “Treehome95” (featuring a meandering Erykah Badu) and three-part furlough “PartyIsntOver/Campfire/Bimmer” (with Frank Ocean and Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier) — help hold the album together over its sprawling length.
A great hypocrisy arises from all the online rubbernecking directed at Odd Future and Tyler in particular: It’s that people are quick to throw stones at this specific crew of misbehaving youth, while ignoring or giving pass to other groups who remain just as guilty. Pop music literati are quick to revere a band like, say, NWA, despite the fact that that crew’s music contained just as abhorrent material. I think this is due to a couple of reasons: 1) the commodification of hip-hop has allowed for the kitsch-ing of certain aspects of its music (which effectively removes power from a sub-genre like gangsta rap); and 2) Tyler and company are striking a particular nerve among the liberal intellectual set who consider things like gender equality and LGBT rights the important issues of the day. It’s absolutely true we must value those things, but where we get lost is in the dichotomous translation of Tyler’s words as they’re received by the “enlightened” 35-year-old, white male music critic, and the 18-year-old disaffected young person to whom Tyler is primarily speaking. Like it or not, Odd Future speaks the language of the youth.
On “Colossus”, Tyler rehashes an encounter with an obsessed fan whose life experiences mirror the troubled ones of his own. For the rapper, it’s an uncomfortable brush with the fellow alienated and estranged. It illustrates the repercussions of being fluent in their language while finding common ground in a public sphere. Tyler already knows there are equal and opposite reactions from those who might oppose his viewpoint, but he may just now be learning what it means when his words act as a force of attraction.