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‘Lumberjack’ Is a Reminder Tyler, the Creator Can Rap His Ass Off

The MC returned Wednesday with a new single that pays homage to Golden Era hip-hop and shows that even if he can make great pop music, he’s not done with rap yet

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

So, Tyler, the Creator’s back to rapping like that, huh?

More than a decade ago, the onetime Odd Future leader burst into the music world as the most controversial MC hip-hop had seen since the early Slim Shady days—an equal-opportunity offender who ate roaches and drew the ire of GLAAD. But a funny thing happened in the past few years: Tyler grew up. In 2017, he dropped Flower Boy, an introspective LP that grappled with his sexuality and seemed to signal a new, more mature Wolf Haley. He followed up two years later with Igor, an excellent kaleidoscope of a pop album loaded with lush instrumentation and indelible hooks. His transition was even more apparent outside of his songs, as he dropped the shitposter aesthetic and started making a lot of sense, particularly in his comments about the Recording Academy after his Grammy win in 2020.

As necessary as Tyler’s newfound growth was, it crowded out an important piece of his story: The man knows how to rap. Really well. He proved that repeatedly throughout his early albums but, somewhat paradoxically, the actual rapping took a back seat as his music got better. Flower Boy had a few scant moments that allowed Tyler to flex his lyrical muscles—shout-out to “I Ain’t Got Time!,” the hardest song to ever feature brags about kissing white boys—and Igor did away with the rapping almost entirely. So when Tyler began teasing his upcoming sixth album earlier this week, it was fair to wonder where he would take his music next. Well, we seem to have an answer.

On Wednesday, Tyler released “Lumberjack,” presumably the first single off his upcoming album, which may or may not be named “Call Me If You Get Lost.” The track arrived alongside a surreal accompanying video directed by the rapper himself. But while the visuals feel like a clear continuation from the Igor era, it’s immediately clear this is not an “Earfquake” redux: “Lumberjack” is a two-minute neck-snapper that does away with the falsetto and taps into a side of Tyler we haven’t seen in years. After a false start and a quick story about sharing a “beautiful moment” with his mother, he goes in, opening with a dazzling bit of wordplay on the chorus:

Rolls-Royce pull up, Black boy hop out
Shout-out to my mother and my father, didn’t pull out
MSG sell out, fuck these n—as yap ‘bout?
Whips on whips, my ancestors got they backs out

“Lumberjack” doesn’t hide its intentions—it plainly wants to align itself with classic hip-hop. The beat lifts heavily from “2 Cups of Blood,” a song from Gravediggaz’s classic album 6 Feet Deep, and DJ Drama appears throughout, dropping his famous “Gangsta Grillz” ad-lib. In the hands of a lesser artist, these things may play like cheap homages. In Tyler’s, they’re artistic flourishes. It helps that he doesn’t need nostalgia to get over. It also helps that he’s dropping lines that like, “My n—a tall, look like a bitch, I call him Mulan / Salad colored emerald on finger, the size of croutons.” “Lumberjack” may nod toward the Golden Era, but Tyler can only ever do Tyler.

It remains to be seen what shape Tyler’s next project will take. Given his recent trajectory, it’s unreasonable to expect an entire album of tracks like “Lumberjack,” especially given the critical and commercial successes of his past two albums. And the promotional materials for the LP seem to indicate that he’s not done messing around. But whatever the end result is, it seems as though Tyler’s getting ready to level up once again, even if he has to tap into his past self to do so.