Tyler, The Creator Destroys Himself

We’ve spent the better part of a decade watching Tyler, The Creator grow up. On the early Odd Future mixtapes, he embodied a particular type of post-adolescent id—petulant, terrifying, frequently brilliant, and consistently offensive. He gobbled cockroaches, incited multiple riots, declared that “rape’s fun,” squabbled with LGBT activists, and, ultimately, was banned from the UK and New Zealand. Throughout these various ordeals, he used his age as both a weapon—taunting “40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci”—and as a defense, confessing, “I’m not a fucking role model, I know this/ I’m a 19 year old fucking emotional coaster”.

This was at least somewhat tolerable because Tyler and his friends were talented, and, perhaps more importantly, it was all presented as a joke. This wasn’t the crack-era nihilism of Mobb Deep or the urban-trench warfare of Tupac. It was a lot more low-stakes than that. O.F.’s various offenses were wrapped in the detachment and filters of post-Tumblr irony. If you were offended, you didn’t get it, and, if you didn’t get it, you were old, irrelevant, etc. Yeah, Tyler was a serious person, but he was also very serious about letting us know he’s not particularly serious.

The dynamic was both exhilarating and confounding, but it hit a dead end. Cherry Bomb’s mishmash of cloned, clamoring N.E.R.D. beats was nearly unlistenable, and Tyler’s shouted adolescent angst schtick was wearing thin. He was still squabbling with his critics over saying “faggot,” and there was one hackneyed line (“I’m so far ahead you niggas, I’m in the future”) after another (“The boy’s a fucking problem like turbulence, boy”). The initial shock-of-the-new transformed into the tedium-of-the-rote, and even his admirers begin to wonder if there was actually any there there.

Flower Boy is supposed to be his coming-out party. This is the point where Tyler pulls off the bandages, and reveals a true(r), more mature self. And, for the most part, it works. He still has the same tools in his kit—he’s still ripping off the Neptunes, and he’s still a very self-conscious provocateur—but he does refine, expand, and, ultimately, negate his prior persona. It’s an exciting and unexpected transformation. For our corresponding playlist, we’ve collected the album’s key tracks, as well as its influences, collaborators and sample sources.

The album hits a high point with “911/ Mr. Lonely.” The song is restless, sonically and thematically, skirting between various movements and motifs. The first few seconds sound like a lark, a tongue-in-cheek riff on the sort of pleading R&B love songs that serve as a decades-spanning through-line for that genre. Over a trainwreck of stacked drums, vocalist Steve Lacey coos, “call me, call me sometimes,” before quickly adding the punchline, “911.” Then the song shifts; the drums fall into place, a lovely, melancholic piano melody peeks through the haze, and Tyler emerges to deliver one of the album’s most startling lyrics: “My thirst levels are infinity and beyond.”  The line is both corny and transcending, and, throughout the song, Tyler mines the space between kitsch and confession, declaring himself the “loneliest man alive,” while referencing Elon Musk, Celine Dion and Hasbro toymaker Arto Monaco. Later in the song, he’ll admit that “I’ve never been good with bitches,” because “I’ve never had a goldfish.” ScHoolboy Q briefly appears, and declares Tyler an “old lonely-ass nigga.”

The track is surprising, funny, a bit unstable, and aggressively self-negating. It’s also revealing and shocking in a way that is not merely “provocative.” Tyler’s comfort with ambiguity is one of the album’s defining qualities, and Tyler uses these gray spaces to his advantage. Much has been made of Tyler’s line about “kissing white boys,” and whether or not this means that Tyler is queer. It’s what everyone is talking about, except Tyler. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter who Tyler hooks up with—he’s found new, exciting ways to make himself vulnerable, and, ultimately, Flower Boy works because it feels high-stakes. Tyler understands the old maxim that he needs to destroy in order to rebuild, and the danger inherent in that process has pushed him to create his most refined, focused, and satisfying work to date.