Tyler, the Creator


Rating: 4.0/5.0

Label: XL

When’s the last time anyone was truly scared of hip-hop? Not counting the Sarah Palins of the world, who can’t tell their Commons from their Ol’ Dirty Bastards, we’ve come a long way from the days when public hysteria was strong enough that a group like Public Enemy could make serious accusations about the FBI tapping their phones. And yet here we are, with the ascent of Odd Future, a crew that deals in horrific imagery and outright menace under the leadership of Tyler, the Creator.

Tyler’s fiercely anticipated XL debut Goblin immediately draws a line in the sand between those who “get” Odd Future and those who don’t with a psychiatric exploration of what Tyler’s aggression and violent antics are really about. The album’s title track finds Tyler once more speaking with the omniscient therapist from Bastard, Dr. T.C. On Bastard, Dr. T.C. worked Tyler through his abandonment and confidence issues but now the doctor’s got his work truly cut out for him as he navigates the complexities of Tyler’s newfound fame and the critical and public expectations that go along with that.

I’m not a fucking role model” is the first thing you hear Tyler say, with the clarification that he is instead an “Emotional coaster with pipe dreams” who, despite his shocking ambition, still feels as though he’s the same slacker kid who spends more time jerking off than achieving his goals. Hip-hop has always had its fair share of figures working through their issues in a public setting, but Tyler may be the most committed to this idea, essentially turning his works into unfiltered dissections of his psyche. Fear of hip-hop used to mean a fear of militancy, of gangstas rising to the level of folk heroes and the trend towards smoothing out those rough edges with Auto-Tune and R&B structures has turned Tyler not into the emcee we need but the one we deserve.

So his admission that, “I’m not a fucking rapist/ Or serial killer/ You guys caught me, I lied” isn’t just a clever one-liner but a flip of the idea of truth in music, a direct put-down of our need for authenticity from our artists even as the charts are dominated by the fakest of performers. The irony is that by being so open about his knowledge of what his expected role is, Tyler actually has become the most authentic figure in music, a teenager who doesn’t just understand that he’s a “fucking walking paradox” but revels in it and our difficulties handling the genuinely unsettling nature of his lyrics.

If Tyler was just a gimmick, a weird kid dressed up in day-glo tees and oversized baseball caps juxtaposed with brutal music, we wouldn’t even have to have this discussion of authenticity. But instead, a 19 year-old who plays at being a psychopath, threatening to crash the planes of mainstream rivals and rip out their throats, has turned into the hip-hop savior to the white critical community he outright despises, going so far as to promise to stab those “hipster[s] with a Pitchfork.” As unfair as that burden is (and as childish as his response can be), Tyler certainly brings the goods where it counts.

The growing confidence of his flow aside, Tyler’s real strength is still his ability to produce tracks that sound like nothing else going on in hip-hop right now. “Yonkers” may have some traits in common with RZA’s signature lo-fi aesthetic and “Radicals” shares hardcore sonics with P.O.S. and his Doomtree Collective, but there are too many unique little twists to make them kin. “Yonkers” threatens to fall apart at every moment, with breakdowns that shouldn’t work and ingredients that don’t so much stop and start as outright bail at random intervals. “Radicals” has voices coming out of every end of the sonic spectrum, like the musical representation of schizophrenia.

Not all of the experiments work, “Transylvania” the most obvious flop here, but consistency isn’t the point (is it ever in hip-hop?). Tyler’s ratio of hits-to-misses, instead, should be the focus and on that front Goblin is an inarguable success, with several musical adventures that more than make up for the missteps. “Tron Cat” ditches the lo-fi filters in favor of huge washes of buzzing analog synths getting nipped in the heels by antique drum machines as Tyler does a lyrical approximation of what Odd Future’s version of A Clockwork Orange would be. “Sandwitches” is Tyler and Hodgy Beats fucking slaying it to a stuttering beat and cheaply effective synths. Hell, there’s even a Kraftwerk-like instrumental throwdown in “AU79.”

Goblin may never reach the heights that Odd Future’s buzz promised but to be honest, what could have? Tyler still needs an editor, someone to trim the fat from his tracks; six tracks on the album go past the five minute mark, threatening to make Goblin the proggiest of recent hip-hop releases. And telling where Tyler, the Creator ends and Tyler, the Person begins is becoming far more difficult as Tyler racks up the arrests, meaning that taking Tyler at his word about his misogyny, homophobia, racism and psychopathy being an act could become less realistic as he reveals more about himself.

But given the immense expectations heaped on Tyler with this album, just the fact that Goblin doesn’t find the wunderkind falling flat on his face is kind of amazing. Tyler seems to work best when he’s got plenty of subjects for his hate and with Billboard covers and Pitchfork essays dogging him on, Goblin’s follow-up will likely be the stone cold classic this album isn’t. But the imperfection here is part of the appeal. Tyler’s immediate deflation of the expectations, the reminder that he’s not a fucking role model, that he’s got an insatiable taste for porn, the hint that to him this is all one big psychological experiment is what should be scaring all of us. Because if this is Tyler as slacker, just what the fuck is Tyler operating at full capacity going to be like?

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