Flower Boy: Tyler the Creator continues to break the mold on his first truly excellent album

August 25, 2017

There’s been no shortage of great music in summer 2017. In June, Jay-Z released his groundbreakingly personal “4:44,” and shortly after, Lorde exploded back into our eardrums with the excellent “Melodrama.” But for me, the standout of the summer has to be Tyler the Creator’s “Flower Boy,” an album that finds the 26-year-old rapper finally committing to saying something. But what makes “Flower Boy” so compelling is that the journey—Tyler’s struggle to communicate—is just as interesting as the content and message he’s trying to get across.

Tyler’s career up to this point has produced uneven, bloated and (at times) disgusting work, but it’s always been unique. Tyler, at around age 19, made a name for himself as the founder and leader of the hip-hop collective Odd Future, which burst onto the rap scene around 2010 and included the now-successful solo artists Frank Ocean and Earl Sweatshirt (and a bunch of other, significantly less-talented members). Odd Future, or OFWGKTA (Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All), immediately stood out as this group of underground rulebreakers in a time when hip-hop was dominated by the cookie cutter sounds of rappers like B.o.B. The video accompanying Tyler’s first lead single, “Yonkers,” featured the rapper eating a cockroach, a move that in many ways perfectly encapsulates the beginning of Tyler’s career: unlike anything you’ve ever seen before, but not necessarily in a good way.

The “Yonkers” video went viral, and soon Tyler’s first studio album followed: “Goblin” (2011). Six years later, “Goblin” still isn’t exciting. It’s uncompromising and unbearably long, and it’s all too edgy. Much of the lyrics are rampant with misogyny and homophobia, but by the release of “Goblin,” Odd Future’s fans had figured out what was going on. The whole point of the offensive lyrics was to shock: Every angry blog post or loud dismissal of Tyler was making him a bigger and bigger name. He wasn’t eating cockroaches because he liked the taste of insects, he was doing it to be provocative. And in general, it’s a strategy that paid off. Odd Future became famous not through some record deal or constant corporate promotion, but through its own internet stunts, and as a result, the group never had to compromise the content of its music to appeal to a broader audience.

But in the half a decade since, it looked like Tyler might be better at creating controversy than quality. “Wolf,” his 2013 follow-up to “Goblin,” was a refinement of much of the same shock-rap territory. It’s better, but it’s still about five songs too long and not really saying anything (with the exception of a couple songs, to be honest, I really like a lot of “Wolf”). Meanwhile, Tyler’s third album, “Cherry Bomb,” (2015) was a pretty huge misfire. Like “Wolf,” it has a few great songs, but in general, Tyler’s own production drowns out his voice, and a lot of his same schtick just isn’t as shocking or interesting as it used to be. His “rule breaker” persona had run its course, and worse, many of the members of Odd Future had gone their separate ways. A lot of what Tyler relies on during “Goblin” and “Wolf” is a little help from his friends, and in his first solo outing, he’d largely fallen flat, unable to lean on constant self-referential Odd Future references and guest verses.

Which brings us to “Flower Boy,” Tyler’s second, and much more successful, truly solo album. It really feels like Tyler has abandoned much of his shock-rap tendencies, but that’s not to say that he’s lost his ability to shock. Tyler dominated headlines again earlier this summer with the revelation that after years of using homophobic language, he himself might be gay, apparently coming out of the closet on the song “Garden Shed.” The extremely personal track finds Tyler confronting and reflecting on his sexuality through a deep metaphor, struggling to articulate that he may not be straight in a way that will be taken seriously. After all, had Tyler just explicitly come out of the closet, it likely would have been dismissed as just another example of his shocking persona.

Tyler does remark on his sexuality at other points (there’s a great bar later in the album: “Next line will have em like woah/I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004), but “Flower Boy” is much more about Tyler’s meditations on his past loves and loneliness. The opening track, “Forward,” gives us a glimpse at the latter—the lyrics illustrate Tyler’s isolation, anxieties and finally, nostalgia, and these themes are also addressed on the fantastic “See You Again,” which is as catchy as the feelings Tyler describes. But it can’t be said that Tyler has lost his ability to craft some great bangers: “Who Dat Boy” (which has this awesome intro) finds Tyler as boisterous as ever, and “I Ain’t Got Time” is just a really fun song.

But for the first time in his career, Tyler balances the fun with some real depth, especially on the back half of “Flower Boy.” There isn’t really a narrative here, but following “Garden Shed” comes “Boredom” and “9/11 / Mr. Lonely,” which (at least thematically) lead into the resolution of “November.” It’s likely the most meaningful track in Tyler’s entire discography, finding the formerly invulnerable rapper just wanting to go back to better times. In the song, he worries he doesn’t have any classics, but the 26-year-old jack-of-all-trades shouldn’t fear—with “Flower Boy,” Tyler’s success is abundant and apparent. It took me two full listens to really appreciate what Tyler’s crafted here, to soak up all of the pretty instrumentals and digest the complex metaphors, and anyone with even a passing interest in Tyler should bear witness to his maturation. It’s clear even in terms of the album’s length: All of Tyler’s prior outings have overstayed their welcome—“Flower Boy” is his first work that leaves the listener wanting more. The production is as awesome as ever, and Tyler the Creator finally has something to say that isn’t meant to offend.

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