In 2011, the world watched in fascination and horror as a young L.A. rapper named Tyler the Creator gulped down a cockroach and hung himself in his first music video, “Yonkers.” However, after countless debates over Tyler’s violence, misogyny, and homophobia, the hype faded, and it seemed like the young rapper and his rowdy crew, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, were destined to become another flash in the pan.
But Tyler’s stuck around, against the odds. Odd Future’s 2012 debut album, The OF Tape Vol. 2, was both commercially and critically successful, and Tyler’s recently released third solo album, Wolf, shows that he may be around for a while. His content is still shocking, for sure, but he’s also deft wordsmith with an urgent story to tell and an excellent ear for hooks. Perhaps for the first time, Tyler’s music can be taken at face value, and it’s pretty damn good.
If anyone still doubts Tyler’s abilities as a rapper, they’ll have to answer to the dense lyrical schemes on Wolf. Within the first verse of the album, he’s employed alliteration, assonance, and homophones to skillful effect. His blunt, unyielding flow mashes reference after reference, necessitating multiple listens to catch everything: “Wolf Haley got more methods than Pinkman/I'm never civil, f*ck Lincoln.”
His rhymes are supported by rich production that shows impressive growth from the tinny synth-driven beats of Goblin. Tyler plays many of the piano parts himself, and he adds horns, bells, vocal samples to create dense, varied textures. In the nostalgic “Awkward,” jazzy piano and quivering strings combine with Tyler’s chopped and screwed vocals to create a dreamy soundscape.
“Awkward” also shows his maturation as a storyteller. We know that Tyler can get rowdy, but here lends his impressive chops to painfully honest lyrics that get capture the desire and heartbreak of an adolescent love story.
“Making eye contact I feel like the damn man/Cause even though I am and get a round of applauses/I’m insecure and start to think that I do not stand a chance.” For such a polarizing, controversial figure, Tyler comes off as surprisingly relatable.
It’s impressive, then, that Tyler can lend his voice equally well to both rote adolescence and psychosis. Wolf traces the voices of two of three demented characters as they interact with and threaten each other. On the lead single, “IFHY,” he embodies the most violent one, swinging between seething aggression (I’ll lose a couple screws in due time, I’ll stop breathing/And you’ll see the meaning of stalking”) and tender love (“When I hear your name, I cannot stop cheesing”). The rhymes are fairly simply here, but he is inarticulate in a way that strikingly conveys manic depression.
Of course, both Tyler and Wolf have flaws to work out. At 71 minutes, Wolf is too long, and Tyler’s dense rhymes and similarly lush beats have the tendency to run together. Despite some strides forward, he remains an incredibly alienating presence who is wont to recoil from uncomfortable situations — his awkward, disengaged performance on Letterman a telling example. He is still very young, and it will be interesting to see if he can carry his adolescent, moody act with him into his 30s.
But for someone who could have receded into the background, Tyler has instead evolved into a more complete, mature musician. He’s embraced the national spotlight, all the while keeping his Island-of-Misfits crew in tow. He is, in his own words, “the cowboy on my own trip.”