That exchange, on “Smuckers,” a perfect (perfect) song from Tyler, the Creator’s 2015 album Cherry Bomb, unwittingly sets the table for the song you’re going to hear about most off of his latest, Flower Boy, out Friday. (Tyler’s been marketing the album as Scum Fuck Flower Boy.) “Smuckers” was surprising enough; both Lil Wayne and Kanye West appear, rapping like their younger, goofier selves in Tyler’s odd hinterland of keys, horns, and purposefully shitty mixing. The exchange itself came and went — a sort-of confession washing out into vague hopelessness, swiftly reined back in with camp. The rapping on Flower Boy’s “Garden Shed” is similarly taut, and the singing is bad but gorgeous, too, in its own clumsy way.
As if projected on a bed sheet over a moonlit backyard, Tyler spills his feelings all over his good flood pants. He mixes metaphors, sharing that he can smell — in his equally inarticulate, would-be lover’s eyes — that there’s still more nothing to be said. His first verse is the overfull pause before the two (Tyler and the unnamed person) shut up and finally just kiss each other already. The person he’s singing with is Grammy winner Estelle of “American Boy” fame, who performed at San Diego Pride this year — that’s easy. The question of who Tyler’s singing to is what sent his longtime friend Mike G to Twitter after the album leaked last week to volunteer that “the homie not gay, he just like dudes.” For the record, Tyler never explicitly says that he’s into dudes on “Garden Shed,” he just thinks aloud about it.
It doesn’t seem quite right to say the 26-year-old is “coming out of the closet” on his fourth official album, because first of all, it’s a shed. A garden shed. He peeks out of it, he retreats back inside, he thinks about how he might’ve made the shed bigger or differently or not at all (as he suggested to Larry King in 2014) if he had it to do over. Two songs later, on “I Ain’t Got Time!” — a song that dances on the finish line while looking back at the field — he makes a huge leap from simply confiding to actively flossing. He’s been kissing white boys since 2004, and the jawn in his passenger seat looks like River Phoenix.
It’s jarring enough to write all of this off as another idea he’s gaming out for attention given his antics, especially given his willful, documented misapprehension of the specific differences between active and cultural homophobia. He said the F-word or another like it at least 213 times on his 2011 debut, Goblin, which, as GQ writer Alex Frank helpfully pointed out, is an average of 14.2 times per song. GLAAD once denounced him as “violently anti-gay.” But he also swoons over ’95 Leonardo DiCaprio, and he apparently tried to tell us he was gay in 2015. There are plenty of other tweets and Instagrams and sound bites and pull quotes gesturing at his sexuality out there to find if you’re willing to look, and more hints to find on the new album itself. On Flower Boy’s opener, “Foreword,” he apologizes to the women he’s strung along just so that he didn’t have to spend any more time alone with his thoughts than necessary:
As ever, our skepticism is our own, and Tyler is off in a world of his own making. It’d be a shame if you didn’t visit, though. With a song or two like the king me, bitch lead single “Who Dat Boy” exempted, Flower Boy is a collection of some of the gentlest, prettiest, most complete music he’s made to date. On some level, it’s the opus he’s been chasing since he was eating cockroaches and hanging himself in music videos. He matches his wide-eyed enthusiasm for confusing sounds with better discernment about where those sounds should go. He talks cash with an emotional openness that suggests the McClarens and Teslas and other luxuries he can finally afford cost more than just the money he paid for them. There are better, more interesting questions asked and answered than “is Tyler, the Creator gay or what?”
I’ll get to those, but I’m going to have to first say some stuff about the Beach Boys’ 1966 album Pet Sounds. People build multi-thousand-word monuments to the teenage love symphony every round anniversary year, talking about the knock-on effect of its influence down the generations, spreading from beach rock to regular rock on into pop, and jazz, and hip-hop, and everything else the light touches. It is a testament to the Beach Boys’ legacy that artists placing sounds where they shouldn’t be, creating a distinct world within their music and inviting listeners to inhabit it for 10 or so songs is a feat so readily associated with Pet Sounds. So big was the shadow it cast on future works that bandleader and architect Brian Wilson couldn’t bring himself to finish the follow-up, Smile, which otherwise would’ve been released in 1967, for 34 years. (He’s made plenty of other music since.) Making a classic is what keeps the restless creative up nights.
But so too does finishing one, and dismaying over how you’re going to do it again. As the story goes, in 1964, at age 24, Wilson had a panic attack on a flight to Houston and chose jimmying string sections and sunny bridges into songs in his house over the pressures of touring with the band. Wilson had never had anything like formal training, and before Tyler went to Hans Zimmer to build the symphonic chord progression on “2SEATER” some time in 2014, he hadn’t either. (To note, Tyler made the rest of the song in his bedroom.) 2013’s Wolf showed his growth as a producer and songwriter, but the indulgent summer camp narrative tied through its 71-minute runtime meant that any steps made toward accessibility (have you tried listening to Goblin recently?) were minuscule. In order to outstrip his previous works and erect the popular, groundbreaking album he wanted to, he’d need new tools. All of the tools.
Cherry Bomb, the album chronicled in the documentary the above clip was pulled from, was intrepid. Foolhardy, even. But above all else it was busy. For all the features that aren’t too out of place for a rap record — Lil Wayne, Kanye West, ScHoolBoy Q, Pharrell — there were zero moves made here that could be considered by the book. Roy Ayers and Leon Ware were there. Charlie Wilson, too. There was “Fucking Young,” which was like if “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was arranged by Stevie Wonder and written while Brian Wilson was nursing a stomach ache from too much candy instead of on psychedelics. Where Bastard, Goblin, and a fair amount of Wolf were spare and rigid, Cherry Bomb is 54 minutes of colorful musical exploration that alternately grates and stirs, to your annoyance or excitement, but always to your surprise. For example, “FIND YOUR WINGS” is a (completely unironic) six-minute hymnal about joie de vivre, and it shows up out of nowhere after Tyler has been rapping like a pilot with no landing gear for four straight songs. It’s not easy making the album you’ve always wanted to make. One of the biggest traps is nodding to every single one of your influences. A lot of people trip it the first time.
It could be my recent realization that I’m in the latter half of my 20s, but it seems to me that if at 24, Tyler was gathering effects, then at 26, he’s selecting. There’s still a lot going on, but now his sounds seem to sprout naturally from places they’ve always been. The synths wandering over the astral guitar strains on “Garden Shed.” Steve Lacy interpolating the “Outstanding” melody for the bridge on “.911/Mr. Lonely” Lil Wayne shepherding an Adam and Eve metaphor through a painfully short interlude. Frank Ocean making house calls for free therapy sessions on “Where This Flower Blooms” and “Mr. Lonely.” ASAP Rocky slamming the refrigerator door shut, also on “911/Mr. Lonely”: “I cain’t eem lie I been lonely as fuck.”
The scope of Flower Boy is so much wider and more complicated than “Coming Out Party.” Instead of dressing his insecurities in alter-egos like Dr. TC or Wolf Haley or whomever, there’s honest, naked doubt here. “Mr. Lonely” is claustrophobic, walled in between the zany, irreverent character he’s been selling for eight years, and the isolated life he’s purchased with the proceeds. (“I say the loudest in the room is prolly the loneliest one in the room.”) On “November” he wonders if he’s watching his money closely enough, if he’ll ever escape cult-figure status to be mentioned in the same breath as his idols, if he’ll ever make an album as good as Innervisions. On “Boredom” he talks about how poorly he does on his own, wishing his friends would hit him up to hang out more often.
Later in that Cherry Bomb documentary, Wayne twaddles about perception of the self, urging Tyler, and maybe us, to be more than what others see. “Let the world be your mirror. Don’t let them judge you.” It looks pretty Fake Deep from afar, but there’s an equal chance that it’s Actual Deep, and maybe even heartening, if you squint. Whatever it was, Tyler took it to heart: Whether he’s more comfortable within himself isn’t for me to say, but on Flower Boy he’s less scattered, more available. He’s built an album-sized replica of his mind, populated it with some of his most private thoughts (and Corinne Bailey Rae!), and it’s there waiting for you, whenever you’re ready to take the trip.