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Who’s (Still) Afraid of the Big, Bad Wolf Gang?

Odd Future founder Tyler, the Creator returned this week with ‘Igor,’ the latest step in his evolution into something of an elder statesman

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Tyler, the Creator would like it very much if you’d listen to his new album, Igor, in full, with no preconceived notions and no skipping around and no pesky distractions whatsoever. (Present company excepted.) “As much as I would like to paint a picture and tell you my favorite moments, I would rather you form your own,” he wrote in a brief, disarmingly genial Twitter message Thursday night, hours before the midnight release of the Los Angeles rapper-producer-impresario’s sixth full-length solo project. “If we ever cross paths, feel free to articulate what those moments were for you.”

You got it, pal. And then, as usual, the undercutting joke, though this one did not, as it usually does, involve the f-word or the other f-word: “Keep it timely tho I’m not tryna have an Oprah episode.” What a card. What a sweetie. He’s going soft. He’s all grown up. What a relief.

Igor, indeed, benefits greatly from your undivided attention. It’s a hazy and grimy and suave art-rap excursion, packed with spectral soul samples and dusty one-man-Madvillain swagger, but turned inward, turned heavenward, vulnerable but also turned pointedly away. The song “A Boy Is a Gun” is lovelorn plea, not a gory massacre; the menacing, clattering loops of “New Magic Wand” or “What’s Good” induce hypnosis but not hostile paralysis. The goal seems to be to knock longtime Tyler devotees off-balance, and what’s extra disorienting is that he’s no longer necessarily trying to pile-drive everybody into the ground. We’re still getting used to the idea of a Tyler record that is not intended to cause actual bodily harm.

Tyler’s decade-long arc from Tumblr-rap enfant terrible to wily, volatile, and increasingly thoughtful elder statesman has been bewildering to behold. Yes, a rapper can find himself an elder statesman before he turns 30; yes, the guy who ate a roach and then hung himself in the video for his MTV-anointed breakout hit, and the guy who used to drop upwards of 14 homophobic slurs per song, qualifies. “Exactly What You Run From You End Up Chasing,” goes the title to a quick Igor interlude, and maybe for him that’s (!?!?) maturity, or a least a less outrage-driven approach to fame and power and sustained attention. Teenage angst has paid off well, and he’s neither bored nor old yet. But he’s old enough to crave something other than cheap notoriety.

Right? Maybe? What he’s craving, exactly, is still subject to much justifiably heated debate. Tyler, the Creator is an uncancelable supervillain for the cancel culture era, his myriad transgressions so monstrous and numerous that they somehow cancel each other out. Igor will likely take a dozen or so listens to fully sink in, very much by design—yet one more indulgence in a dazzling career composed of nothing but. It is very arguable that this person no longer deserves your attention, sustained or otherwise. It is very probable that he still has your attention anyway, despite everything, or maybe—definitely—because of it.

In 2010, Tyler, the Creator was the coolest, and angriest, and scariest, and most grotesque human alive, a virulent teenaged prodigy who left much of the internet both appalled and totally enraptured. He combined underground-rap ardor with punk-rock fury, palpable analog hatred with abstract, Tumblr-borne virality. He was all four horsemen of the apocalypse decked out in Supreme-branded horseshoes.

And thus did thunderstruck critics find themselves agreeing to his terms, playing by his rules. Yes, we will refer to his sublimely chaotic L.A. collective by its full name, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All. Yes, we will add the stupid comma to Tyler, the Creator. Yes, we will regard a nonstop torrent of homophobic slurs as a compelling artistic choice and not empty, witless provocation. Yes, we will treat songs with titles like “epaR” and “Assmilk” as sacred texts worthy of much earnest dissection. (Some early OFWGKTA is transcendent; much of it is “Goop on Ya Grinch” personified.)

It took a few years for Tyler and his loose band of henchmen, first introduced on 2008’s The Odd Future Tape, to fully rise to prominence and sink to full-blown ignominy. But then, seemingly all at once, the group had a dozen free mixtapes available on Tumblr, and a priceless reputation as the hottest and gnarliest and most deplorable young artists on the internet. “When, after all,” Tom Breihan wrote for Pitchfork in early 2011, “was the last time you heard music that aimed to shock and actually succeeded?”

Earl Sweatshirt, who debuted with 2010’s Earl, had a deliriously macabre swagger and, thanks to his breakout hit “Earl,” the gnarliest video. Frank Ocean, the expanded group’s most soulful and mysterious member, brought Odd Future’s first phase to a startling and triumphant close with 2011’s unfathomably tender Nostalgia, Ultra. But it was Tyler’s own debut mixtape, brought screaming into the world on Christmas Day 2009, that defines Phase 1 in all its ferocious precision.

I remember every detail of hearing Bastard for the first time, mostly because the details—drab office, lousy computer speakers—were so mundane. Tyler’s universe was vivid and awful and ridiculous and terrifying from the opening seconds of the opening title track, in which he curses out the rap blogs Nah Right and 2DopeBoyz for not posting his music, pitch-shifts his already cavernous voice down to a sludgy crawl to play the therapist charged with plumbing young Tyler’s psyche, unveils a gorgeous horror-movie piano loop, and then unleashes nine verses of mortifying vitriol.

Verse one: “My father’s dead / Well, I don’t know / We’ll never fucking meet.”

Verse three: “I’m tall, dark, skinny, my ears are big as fuck / Drunk white girls the only way I’ll get my dick sucked.”

Verse eight: “I roll with skaters and musicians with an intuition / I created OF ‘cause I feel we’re more talented / Than 40-year-old rappers talking about Gucci.”

Verse nine: “Fuck a deal, I just want my father’s email / So I can tell him how much I fucking hate him in detail.”

So much charisma. Sorry about all the homophobia and necrophilia and vomiting.

Cut to early 2011, and Tyler’s commanding the stage at Odd Future’s second New York City show (shout-out to Santos Party House), asthma inhaler in hand, crowing garrulous stage banter like “I just wanna slap the fuck out of all parents, and bloggers, and fuckin’ ugly people.” So much charisma. I, personally, felt exhilarated; I, personally, did not feel at all welcome. That’s the deal. It would take most of a decade for another bug-eating, outré-style-flaunting teenager with grisly B-movie magnetism to abruptly and completely seize control of the mainstream conversation like this, and her name is Billie Eilish.

Ah, right, the roach-eating. Here, incredibly, is where Tyler goes mainstream. Sorry (again) for the vomiting, and also for the fact that the video for “Yonkers,” the lead single to his 2011 label debut Goblin, ends with him appearing to hang himself.

You can think of Goblin as a refinement of Bastard’s, uh, technique. He’s a star now, and yet still basically a kid: “I’m not a fucking role model / I’m a 19-year-old fucking emotional coaster with pipe dreams.” The therapist is back, and even amid all the clamor and acclaim, so are Tyler’s darkest demons: “Fuck the fame and all the hype, G / I just want to know if my father would ever like me.”

His sprawling and nauseous and Pharrell-worshiping production is much refined; less so, his taste for grueling provocation. The “Tron Cat” line “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome” is an all-universe cultural low point; Track 12 is called “Bitch Suck Dick.” Exhaustion and disgust and theatrical homophobia is another fundamental part of this enterprise. You can also simply think of Goblin as the album that deploys some variation of a certain f-word 213 times.

In the press, Tyler steadfastly refused to reckon with that ugliness beyond a wan, clichéd insistence that it’s just a word; when called out more pointedly for Goblin’s cruel fixations, as he was by Tegan and Sara’s Sara Quinn, his responses tended to be uglier still. In time, he would address these issues in his music with something akin to sensitivity, something that felt a lot like personal revelation. First, though, let’s get this kid an MTV Video Music Award.

I vividly remember this, too. The 2011 VMAs. He won Best New Artist. I was very confused by how thrilled he seemed. Wasn’t this the vapid mainstream pop universe Odd Future had pledged to destroy? Was this world not bullshit? Who gives a hoot about the VMA for Best New Artist?

He does. He is disarmingly thrilled. He is seated next to his mother. He is wearing tie-dye. He leaps exuberantly onto the wrong stage and, consequently, hobbles onto the right one. He is surrounded by the Odd Future cohorts he’d thoroughly eclipsed by that point. “I wanted this shit since I was 9,” he tells us, one of six times he is bleeped out in less than a minute. Really? Nine? OK. Sure. It’s enough explanation that he’s still basically a teenager, and getting an award is fun, and being on TV is fun, and your mother cheering you on is fun, and being famous is fun, and now—yikes—he gets to do pretty much whatever he wants, which is gonna suck for the rest of us.

Odd Future’s various character arcs make for a fine object lesson—and cautionary tale—about the joys and perils of viral fame. Earl Sweatshirt, absent for most of this initial rise for beguilingly unclear reasons, found his complicated family dynamic reduced, by a legion of bloodthirsty fans who didn’t really know him at all, down to a troubling two-word mantra: Free Earl. His solo career since includes the 2015 album title I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside and the 2018 Pitchfork feature headline “Earl Sweatshirt Does Not Exist.” That was maybe not the way he wanted his career to start. Frank Ocean, too, remains a recluse-enigma figure, albeit with a much higher profile and more effusive year-end-list adoration and even fancier award shows to antagonize. Syd has emerged as a breakout pan-genre star in the making, but quietly, and largely by breaking free from all those boys and all their problems.

Whereas Tyler went on to thrive as a cheerful multihyphenate. The Adult Swim sketch show Loiter Squad. The fashion line Golf Wang. The long-running music festival (and carnival) Camp Flog Gnaw. And, yes, the albums. Wolf, from 2013, had guest spots from Erykah Badu, Stereolab’s Laetitia Sadier, and a proud Pharrell himself, though Tyler’s best chemistry was still with Ocean, especially on the dark rom-com semi-anthem “Awkward.” He still hates his dad, like always: “Mom was only 20 when you ain’t have any fucks to spare / You Nigerian fuck, now I’m stuck with this shitty facial hair.” But a newer (and awfully clichéd) development is that fame kinda sucks. On the cracked piano ballad “Colossus,” Tyler is mobbed by overeager fans at Six Flags; no points for guessing what, exactly, he rhymes with “Six Flags.”

Cherry Bomb, from 2015, is Tyler’s most sonically assaultive record; the pulverizing avant-metal title track pairs nicely with this touching anecdote about the time Tyler got so hyped listening to the venomous art-rap pranksters Death Grips that he and a buddy assembled a giant trampoline in only 17 minutes. (“That’s when I realized,” Tyler wrote, “that Death Grips was my meth.”) Production-wise, Pharrell and his various maximalist rap-rock exploits remain Tyler’s north star: Tyler has graced the world with several dozen variations on the N*E*R*D jam “Lapdance” alone. “Smuckers,” a weedy summit with none other than Lil Wayne and Kanye West, reveled in his ever-brightening star power. But Cherry Bomb also makes room for jazz-funk deity Roy Ayers and much arena-prog abstraction. Tyler was less mainstream than ever but still, somehow, a focal point, declaring Stevie Wonder his real competition in a Fader cover story that also featured his mother yelling at him to clean the kitchen.

This also happened in 2015.

The plot twist on Tyler’s gentlest and most critically celebrated album, 2018’s Flower Boy, was technically not a plot twist by then, but it was still quite jarring to hear Mr. 213 Gay Slurs on One Album suddenly rap lines like “I been kissing white boys since 2004” and “Truth is / Since a youth, kid / Thought it was a phase / Thought it’d be like the phrase / Poof / Gone / But it’s / Still / Goin’ / On.”

Was this just four-dimensional-chess trolling? Was it a plea for redemption? Does he deserve it? What does it say about me that my two favorite songs on this record—“Who Dat Boy” and “I Ain’t Got Time!”—are the ones that sound the most like the old, combative, hostile, unredeemable Tyler? What does it say about the sincerity of that well-worn hostility that “I Ain’t Got Time!” is the song with the “kissing white boys” line? Is this what evolution looks like, musically and otherwise? Who is this person? Is the guy who ate the roach allowed to do the soundtrack for a remake of The Grinch? And is it weird that I like this song from that soundtrack more than anything on Flower Boy?

“What’s Good” is the Igor track I’m hung up on for the moment, with the stunned digital-sunrise bleariness of fellow L.A. space-funk cadets like Dâm-Funk or Thundercat, and a mid-song droning pivot to something very much like Tyler’s very own version of Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Tyler’s not quite out for think-piece prestige here—I just like the way he chants “Dracula Dracula Dracula” as the bass kicks in.

“I see the light,” goes the song’s quasi-refrain, which would, of course, for Dracula himself, be fatal. We’re coming up on a decade of taking Tyler, the Creator very seriously, dropping in that fucking comma and parsing his shall-we-say fluid approach to sexuality, his and others’. He has spoken, and rapped, and behaved, abominably. Much of the historical attention focused on him has been grudging, if not outright hostile, and you sense, even amid all his let-me-know-what-you-think platitudes regarding Igor, that the feeling is still mutual.

He is probably never going to apologize, for anything. You probably wouldn’t totally buy it if he did. Igor is possibly a very good album that is definitely not going to clear anything up. Presuming you don’t outright hate him, you’d probably like him a little less if it did.