Lazy summer soul-bearing with a dash of satire
by Jericho Cerrona
26-year-old rapper/producer Tyler, The Creator is no stranger to controversy. In fact, he's built his brand on an ever escalating series of Internet-savvy trolls and pokes at PC culture. After the demise of blog-hyped rap collective Odd Future, Tyler went off on his own, disappearing into the netherworld of narcissistic meme wars, homophobic slurs, and bracing musical bravado. 2009 mixtape Bastard and 2011 followup Goblin now feel somewhat quaint in Trump's America; less transgressive than juvenile, more of a social media trigger warning for millennial snowflakes than an actual modus operandi from a young rapper with something to say.
Now, with Flower Boy, Tyler has supposedly "grown up" and made a mature record detailing a new found social consciousness, earnest stab at vulnerability, and the most attention-grabbing headline: his apparent identification as a gay black man. When word initially leaked that Tyler was coming out on his latest album, the response on social media was predictably polarized. Some praised him for his bravery, but most simply thought it was another way to stir up a reaction. Let's not forget, Odd Future made shockwaves years ago with homophobia and rape lyrics, and as a solo artist, Tyler has more or less continued waving that flag. There's a tension throughout Flower Boy--on the one hand, it's the least vile and most seemingly genuine thing Tyler has done yet, while on the other--there's a sneaking suspicion that underneath the left-field production and gravely voice, he's pulling yet another mean-spirited joke. Such is the pitfalls for any young artist known for provocation and controversy; it's hard to tell sincerity from satire.
Knowing what we know of Tyler (on and off stage) will undoubtably color one's reaction to Flower Boy. However, taken on its own merits, this is a beautifully arranged, surprisingly meditative hip-hop record. Unpacking Tyler's lyrical preoccupations is another matter, and determining whether or not he's actually being sincere or simply adopting a persona is instructive, but not necessarily essential. Can someone largely known for hate speech be forgiven? Does Tyler even want forgiveness? Are his pleas for connection and lovestruck longing for a male suitor (referenced here as "95 Leo") to be taken seriously, or has the anti-comedy mold of misogyny and vitriolic hate merely grown into something more outwardly acceptable?
As an album, Flower Boy doesn't exactly answer these questions, and it's probably not meant to. Instead, Tyler lets us into his headspace through the power of verse and production. On "Foreword", he nods towards the Black Lives Matter Movement while simultaneously using the platform as a way of addressing his sexual orientation. Shoutout to the girls that I lead on/For occasional head and always keeping my bed warm/And trying they hardest to keep my head on straight/And keeping me up enough till I had thought I was airborne. Whether this is an apology for his previous homophobic preoccupations or simply a plea for understanding is debatable, but it's nonetheless a shocking opening salvo from someone known mostly for dick measuring contests and faux-braggadocio. The sensitivity training continues with cuts like "See You Again", which sounds like N.E.R.D. crossed with a sultry R & B jam, the synth-driven lovestruck ballad "Garden Shed", and "Glitter", which sees Tyler leaving infatuated voicemails for his elusive male crush. Throughout, the incorporation of funky beats, wonky keyboard flourishes, auto-shifting vocals, and Neptunes-inspired soundscapes keeps things floating in the realm of pleasurable awe. Of course, there are appropriately savage tracks here too that we've come to expect, such as "Who Dat Boy", which opens with creepy violin strings and off-kilter synths like something of a Darren Aronofsky film before exploding into an all-out rant, and the bong-ripped slow banger, "Pothole."
Those expecting a standard rap album will most likely be disappointed by Flower Boy. Tyler seems more interested in jazzy interludes, old school R & B, and progressive elements than typical verse/chorus/verse flows with club-ready beats, but this makes the record much more satisfying. In the past, Tyler's ambitions have gotten away from him, particularly on 2015's Cherry Bomb, which boasted way too many sonic ideas than he could possibly fit into one cohesive project. Here, there's a rigor and clarity that hints at progression and maturity, even if it's still too early to unequivocally state that Tyler has officially grown up. In a way, Flower Boy is a deconstruction of public persona as well as a radical attempt to understand how much private longings should be made public. Behind all of the controversial verses, pitch black horror imagery, and ego-stroking seems to be a forward-thinking artist interested in both aggression and tenderness. Guest spots from the likes of Pharrell, Frank Ocean, Corinne Bailey Rae, Estelle, and others also point to this fact, as if he hopes to redefine himself as the spiritual funk/soul grandson of Quincy Jones.
Has the detached, homicidal observer transformed into the open-hearted "loneliest man alive" or has great effort simply been spent creating another post-modern troll on listeners who have grown accustom to knowing everything about their idols via social media? Part of the fascination with Tyler is our inability to get a firm read on him. As such, Flower Boy is either a daring Andy Kaufman-esque con, or the evolution of the artist in full bloom, and honestly, does it really even matter?