Flower Boy is a major departure, both in subject matter and maturity level.
How do you solve a problem like Tyler, the Creator? The Ladera Heights rapper, notoriously banned from performing in the U.K. because his music was branded hate speech, loves a good contradiction. His records are littered with characters—enough to populate a cartoonier Hold Steady album—that populate the darkest corners of human id, but he keeps a healthy amount of authorial distance from his creations. His early work featured a startling onslaught of tough-as-nails violent imagery and homophobic language, but his new album Flower Boy (promoted as Scum Fuck Flower Boy) is a vulnerable piece of self-reflection and an ode to what sounds like a male lover. The half-winked title provides recognizable traces of Tyler’s back catalog, but on the whole, Flower Boy is a major departure, both in subject matter and maturity level.
Sonically, it’s a smooth kaleidoscope where his past records were dry, fuzzed-out slabs of metal. Frank Ocean joint “911/Mr. Lonely” rides on a bouncy vocal hook and features carefully-timed bursts of radiant piano; the Estelle-featuring “Garden Shed” sports spacey stoner-rock guitar and an electronically-enhanced Motown groove. The tender “November” has Tyler ruminating on a years-old relationship, asking things like, “What if I thought the brake was the gas?/ What if I crashed?/ What if these deep thoughts was my last?,” with a disarming level of self-possession and comfort. Tyler’s retention of his signature wit and lyrical dexterity keeps this mellowed-out sensibility from curdling into treacly nonsense; if he does come out on this record, he does it hilariously, announcing on the bright, clattering “I Ain’t Got Time!,” “Next line will have ’em like ‘Whoa!’/ I’ve been kissing white boys since 2004.”
Much of the discussion around Flower Boy has centered on these Channel Orange-esque speculations about Tyler’s sexuality, and while that’s certainly an important conversation, it neglects the fact that Flower Boy, like Channel Orange, is an incredible emotional artifact. Because we’re used to Tyler the abrasive provocateur, with his body-horror music videos and songs about statutory rape, Flower Boy’s softest moments pierce with the added weight of being so hard-won. The album is clearly tinkered-over, shot through with the sense that he’s honed each phrase to absolutely maximize its emotional clarity. By the time the closing instrumental “Enjoy Right Now, Today” wraps with the sound of footsteps on gravel, it feels like a collective sigh between listener and creator: all that needed saying has been said, and it could hardly have gone better.
What, then, of the people who claim that Tyler’s prior homophobia taints the homoerotic content of Flower Boy? It’s a fair point: regardless of where it comes from, hate speech leaves a mark, and internal struggle doesn’t necessarily absolve someone of bearing that weight. It misses the point, though; nothing about Flower Boy feels like Tyler is looking for absolution. There’s no air of apology here. This can upset detractors who consider his use of slurs inexcusable, and reasonably so—but Tyler’s ambitions here are simpler, more elemental.
Despite an overall slower BPM, so many of the words on songs like “See You Again” and “Boredom” feel like they would’ve driven Tyler’s head to explode had he not vented by committing them to wax. It’s urgent. He needs to say these things, so niceties about past wrongs (or perceived wrongs) aren’t even in his rearview mirror: he needs to talk about lost love, sexual confusion, loneliness and his wavering skill at living in the present. Sometimes his emotional declarations are hidden behind opaque jokes or pronoun-free love letters—a quick YouTube investigation will reveal Tyler’s masterful deflective abilities—but they’re still gonna come pouring out one way or another.